Over the years – and with the approach of another war - terrible visions like these increased. For example, the July 28, 1935 San Antonio Light (San Antonio, TX) features illustrations from artist Erik Nitsche. These robots had machine guns for heads, robot scouts with movie camera faces, a twenty-five tube robot military band, and even a robot hospital for the repair of robot soldiers. “When a human soldier gets a bullet in his heart, or in his liver or has himself partly blown to pieces, that is the end of that soldier,” it reads. “Not so with the robot. A new heart can be put in him as easily, almost, as changing a tire.”
The reality, as is often the case, was less sensational. The term “robot” came to life in newspapers to describe the navigation units used by precision bombers that dropped their cargoes on cities across Europe, whilst the German Goliath tracked mine - a remote-controlled demolition vehicle known as the beetle tank to Allies - is regarded as one of the first “robotic” machines on the battlefield. The caterpillar-tracked vehicle was packed with explosives, operated by remote control and designed to drive under – and destroy – tanks. And with that, the robot was no longer an abstraction of the future.
At the same time there was a shift in how the machines of war were portrayed in popular culture. Prior to the war, the ideas for these fantastic robotic fighting machines often came from amateur inventors and were depicted in lurid colour in hobby magazines and news papers. These perhaps reflected the public view of warfare but were often a world away from reality. But, according to Joseph Corn and Brian Horrigan in their 1984 book Yesterday’s Tomorrows, after WWII as the world entered the Cold War era “members of the armed services, in league with scientists and engineers in universities and the defence industry, come to monopolize the crystal ball through which tomorrow’s weapons are glimpsed.
As this view took hold and accelerated, glimpses of the world we live in today become common place, even cropping up in children’s books. “A robot army spearheading an attack could be far more destructive than any human force,” reads a piece in the 1981 kid’s’ book World of Tomorrow: Future War and Weapons. “Its leaders would still be human though. Safely situated far behind the fighting, they would order their robot battalions into action.” The article goes on to detail a future where “small pilotless aircraft packed with sensors and detectors of all kinds to plot enemy positions, measure forces and eavesdrop on their communications.”
Sound familiar? Today, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) commonly fly missions in the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. These drones are controlled by human beings in Nevada and for the first time in history the ability to attack an enemy in real time from the other side of the world is a reality.
The robot warriors, envisaged as a response to the horrors of World War I are now a reality. Today, the US military trains more people each year in the operation of unmanned drones than they do fighter pilots. There are currently over 7,000 unmanned aerial drones and over 12,000 robotic ground vehicles on the ground being used by the United State military. A mandate passed by the US Congress in 2002 has even dictated that a third of the US military be comprised of unmanned forces by 2015. It remains to be seen if they’ll meet that goal.
The question, of course, is precisely where the new realities of robot warfare will take us. Just as the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 forever changed the reality and scope of war, so too might autonomous robot soldiers shift our understanding of what it means to fight and to wage war.
In some way, it seems my generation - the Millennials - are part of our own lost generation. These technologies mean we have lost any connection to war and the real world destruction that it brings. By wrapping ourselves in pixels and coaxial cable we seem to be insulating ourselves from the horrors of the battlefield. At what cost, only future generations will tell.