Robotic warfare and humanitarian aid

March 27, 2009

reaper_afgan interviews P.W. Singer, author of “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.”

The interview describes recent developments in the use of robots and autonomous or remote vehicles in conflict environments.  One of the most interesting questions, from a humanitarian standpoint, was this one:

How will robot warfare change our international laws of war? If an autonomous robot mistakenly takes out 20 little girls playing soccer in the street and people are outraged, is the programmer going to get the blame? The manufacturer? The commander who sent in the robot fleet? 

Singer: That’s the essence of the problem of trying to apply a set of laws that are so old they qualify for Medicare to these kind of 21st-century dilemmas that come with this 21st-century technology. It’s also the kind of question that you might have once only asked at Comic-Con and now it’s a very real live question at the Pentagon.

I went around trying to get the answer to this sort of question meeting with people not only in the military but also in the International Committee of the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch. We’re at a loss as to how to answer that question right now. The robotics companies are only thinking in terms of product liability…and international law is simply overwhelmed or basically ignorant of this technology. There’s a great scene in the book where two senior leaders within Human Rights Watch get in an argument in front of me of which laws might be most useful in such a situation.

The quote, “that’s the essence of the problem of trying to apply a set of laws that are so old they qualify for Medicare to these kind of 21st-century dilemmas” could well apply to a range of issues faced by future humanitarian organisations.  And not just aid organisations, but any organisation grappling with the changing dimensions of technology, law, and ethics in a world of ever increasing change.

Of course these kinds of technologies don`t only have to be used for killing.  Imagine autonomous aerial drones equiped with devices to seek out, map and catalogue unexploded land mines and other ordinance.  Such a flying robot could not only map and identify the location of such hidden killers, but then communicate to other friendly robots to come and disarm or detonate them.  Or picture a world where Big Dog-like robots could carry aid and equipment to disaster torn areas that would be too difficult to navigate by truck?  There is then the familiar premise of the old Wim Wenders film, “The End of Violence“.

It all seems rather science fiction perhaps, and would require a shift in the values of production of deployment of such devices.  But then again it wasn’t too long ago when unmanned flying killing machines seemed a little bit science fiction as well.  As usual, these end up being cultural and political choices, not technological ones.

The full interview is here.

ICRC says, “Humanitarian work has never been as difficult as now” in Afghanistan

March 18, 2009

… and it’s likely to get more difficult in the future, but not just in Afghanistan.

IRIN reports on an ICRC comment that humanitarian work has never been more difficult.  Although the warning is specific to Afghanistan, we suggest it may foreshadow similar warnings in the future.  The ICRC said:

[The warning was[ echoed by the head of the ICRC in Afghanistan, Reto Stocker: “Humanitarian work has never been as difficult as now… 2009 will be a very difficult year for Afghanistan and its people,” he said on 17 March. This is the first time that the UN and the ICRC have made such a bleak forecast – one that is highly relevant for the aid community.

In a statement which could apply to many regions, and increasingly so in the future, the warning concluded “We are already dealing with a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan,” said Stocker, adding that more hostilities, inaccessibility and drought could produce further suffering for vulnerable communities.”

Failed States Index for 2008

January 21, 2009

The Fund for Peace releases a lovely map of their Failed States Index for 2008

12 indicators were used to create this lovely animated map of failed states in 2008, including some of HFP’s favourite research subjects. These include:

  • Mounting demographic pressure
  • Massive movement of refugees or IDP’s creating complex humanitarian emergencies
  • Sharp or severe economic decline

They also published an excellent article discussing these trends in Foreign Policy, which can be found here.  Click the map below for a link to the Fund for Peace’s website on this project.


Futures … and Humanitarian Futures

January 9, 2009

There is a growing community of people and institutions that engage in ‘futures’ analysis.  Isn’t this community just a dressed-up version of fortune-telling?  Perhaps.  What could be different from Nostradamus‘ approach however, is that futures techniques imply a new relationship with time, agency, and fate. Path dependence for the futures-oriented strategist means: the options you have in the future will be based on the choices you make in the present.  For humanitarian organisations, the rationale goes like this: future ability to save lives and alleviate suffering will be based, in part, on choices made today.

This community has a wide range of interests.  Some are concerned with trends in the future of human civilisation, or the transition to a globalised era, others about forecasting for commercial and public policy applications, or building expertise and providing consultant services in the use of futures techniques.  More links are available on the Humanitarian Futures Programme

It is paradoxical to consider why so little of these techniques and perspectives are in use by humanitarians.  There are few ‘translators’ of this stuff to the humanitarian mindset.   Global Dashboard touches on some issues, and Alex Evans has made some terrific points about the reslience of the international humanitarian system.  Other than Ambiguity and Change, and the IFRC internal ten-year strategy initiatives (apparently there is a facebook site for the new strategy 2020), there seems little out there.

Why is the future such a hard sell to humanitarians?

Humanitarian web mapping initiatives

December 24, 2008

There are some very interesting people doing excellent work bringing GIS, web 2.0, and web mapping tools to the humanitarian community.

We hope to profile some of them in the new year and make stronger links between HFP and their work. In the mean time, there are two groups in particular worth highlighting, with representative posts below.

Patrick Philippe Meier is a Doctoral Research Fellow at the Fletcher School’s Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. We’ve been following his blog iRevolution for quite a while. He has several excellent posts related to humanitarian and crisis mapping, with a special focus on crowdsourced mapping platforms, digital activism, etc. Some of our favourites are below:

HumaniNet has an excellent blog presenting lessons from their Maps 2.0 project.  Their goal is to “enable humanitarian organizations to post, access, share, modify, and use critical, geo-referenced information in emergency relief operations, post-emergency reconstruction, and continuing development projects.”  We here at HFP feel that these kinds of efforts are critical to help build skills for 21st century aid response, and HumaniNet is at the cutting edge of implementing these ideas.  Maps 2.0 has some fantastic reports from the field reflecting on what works and what doesn’t.  Some of our favourite posts from Maps 2.0 are below:



All of this relates very directly to the work of one HFP’s partners over at InSTEDD.  That, however, is a post for another time.


Boyd for the agile humanitarian organization?

December 23, 2008

We have been re-reading John Boyd’s seminal Patterns of Conflict (PDF found here) and were struck, once again, by the relevance of his thinking for the 21st Century humanitarian organization.

Boyd writes,

…in order to win, we should operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than our adversaries… Why? Such activity will make us appear ambiguous (unpredictable) thereby generate confusion and disorder among our adversaries—since our adversaries will be unable to generate mental images or pictures that agree with the menacing… rhythm or patterns they are competing against.

Boyd was talking about aerial combat, with reference to other forms of warfare. In a recent post, we reflected on how others (such as John Robb) are pointing out that modern terrorists groups are successfully using this approach against established states and organizations.

Is it possible for humanitarian groups to use these same tactics to be more effective in their own work? If so, what might this look like? Boyd identifies the following attributes of a successful aircraft operating against such conditions. Below we map these principles to principles of planning and action for the humanitarian organization to see how well they fit (slightly edited from Boyd’s original list for ease of reference).

Boyd’s “Recipe for Generating confusion and disorder” Equivalent concepts for the 21st century humanitarian organization
Quick clear scanning sensors Risk assessment, early warning systems, and anticipatory planning processes
Quick shoot fire control systems and high speed weapons Rapid logistical deployment to crisis situations coupled with effective technological and social intervention
High speed, acceleration and deceleration Strategy: rapid policy making, decision-taking, and organizational responsiveness
High maneuverability Tactical: Able to change policy and practice rapidly to face changing circumstances

This mapping is clearly quite crude but nevertheless opens some interesting doors for comparison. For example, Boyd argues that in times of rapid change and uncertainty (i.e., when one is facing challenges of a faster tempo than one can make sense of), “it is advantageous to possess a variety of responses that can be applied rapidly” to achieve one’s goals.

This suggest having a diverse playbook for crisis response and wide range of skill sets and mental models ready at hand. To do so requires both top-down visionary leadership and emergent, bottom-up listening. He also argues that “cooperation and harmony of activities” are essential.

Finally he writes, “to shape and adapt to change one cannot be passive; instead one must take the initiative.” This highlights the essential component of agency in the face of uncertainty, which could be framed as being more proactive than reactive. This highlights one of the findings of the joint HFP / Tufts report on “Ambiguity and Change”, which was that to be successful, 21st century humanitarian organizations must achieve a paradigm shift and bridge the gap to sustainable development, not just “cleaning up” after the fact.

Put more simply and directly: the above comments leave one with the impression that variety/rapidity/harmony/initiative (and their interaction) seem to be key qualities that permit one to shape and adapt to an ever-changing environment.

Clearly this is of tremendous relevance to the HFP’s mission enhance the anticipatory and collaborative capacities of humanitarian organizations.

Complexity, collaboration, swarming, and the new politics of war

December 23, 2008

Inspired thinking on how 21st century guerilla groups are embracing principles of complexity, decentralization and collaboration to wage a new kind of warfare, with implications for humanitarian response strategy.

John Robb, author of Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization, provides some insightful insights into the dynamics of complexity and new collaboration techniques that are relevant to the humanitarian community.

In a recent post on emergent communities dedicated to war, he outlines how highly networked terrorist groups are taking advantage of complexity principles to achieve their aims. He notes that such groups are:

  • have little formal structure (are a nest of relationships)
  • have flexible membership (participants flow in and out based on their own personal goals and motivations)
  • are formed in relation to a shared, central purpose or belief.
  • What are the implications of this organisational style for humanitarian collaboration? There are obvious and important differences between networked terrorist organisations and humanitarian organisations, not lease of which is their purpose. Despite these differences, however, an understanding of the tactics, strengths, and weaknesses of this approach is desirable in order to more effectively operate in a sphere where such groups exist and wield power.

    Robb argues, for example, that these groups and their tactics are particularly effective against large, cumbersome systems such as centralised bureaucracies because they understand system dynamics and are able to leverage small actions against their weak points to great effect. 9/11, Mumbai, etc. are relevant examples. While it is unlikely that humanitarian agencies will adopt the organisational style of such groups, knowledge of how they think and operate may be essential to adapt and respond to their actions in the future. His post on on cascading systems failure, for example, identifies strategies and mechanisms for attacking critical infrastructure that any agency responsible for their protection must be aware of. Browse his site in more detail for an engaging read on the future of decentralised, networked collaboration.