Machine Love

October 1, 2013, 10:00 am

An article at Salon notes that American soldiers and marines have anthropomorphized their battlefield robots, bestowing both names and emotions upon them:

As the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have unfolded, the military has been expanding its use of robots on the battlefield. Often, these mechanical helpmates are deployed to carry out high-risk tasks related to the inspection, detection, and defusing of explosives. Their benefits are obvious: They save human lives, cannot be harmed by biological or chemical weapons, and don’t get tired or emotional. But are soldiers becoming too invested in their AI buddies? And could such sentimental attachment cloud their decision-making?

Julie Carpenter, a recent Ph.D. in education from the University of Washington, will explore this question in an upcoming book about human/robot interrelations. She interviewed 23 explosive ordnance personnel—22 men and one women—who worked with robot sidekicks, looking at how they imagined the bots in relation to themselves. She found that some troops anthropomorphized their machines, assigning them names (at times painting them on), genders, and even personalities. And while the soldiers denied that affection for the bots colored their combat strategy, they reported feeling sad and angry when the equipment was destroyed.

This is a long-standing propensity in the military, perhaps the most technological of all of society’s large institutions.[1] Technologies are treated with deep familiarity, somewhere on the border between reverence and contempt and wandering between the two with equal strides. Soldiers, marines, and sailors live with their technologies, depend on their technologies for survival, and often frequently turn them from tools into companions. Stanley Kubrick (well, Kubrick, Michael Herr, and Gustav Hasford, who wrote the screenplay. UPDATE: as rwforce notes in the comments, this is the “The Rifleman’s Creed,” which substantially predates the movie.) noted this effectively in Full Metal Jacket with this soliloquy about a soldier’s rifle:

This is my rifle. There are many like it but this one is mine. My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. Without me, my rifle is useless. Without my rifle I am useless. I must fire my rifle true. I must shoot straighter than my enemy, who is trying to kill me. I must shoot him before he shoots me. I will. Before God I swear this creed: my rifle and myself are defenders of my country, we are the masters of my enemy, we are the saviors of my life. So be it, until there is no enemy, but peace. Amen.

Ships were referred to with human pronouns, and bombers in World War II were given names and pulchritudinous avatars:

Bomber1 zps0e6a13fd

Although sometimes not:

10 bombers art

Before gunpowder arrived, warriors named their swords.

Weapons of war have always been more than simply made objects; they’ve been companions. This is true of some other machines in human societies (that cars have names seems an obvious example), but I don’t think it quite matches the depth or extent of the military’s obsession. Whether this is caring too much is a different question, but there’s nothing new about military machines being treated as more than cold metal.

[1] The medical profession probably gives the military a run for its money.

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