Make Robots Not War

Some Scientists Refuse to Get Paid for Killer Ideas

The dilemma stretches back until at least the immediate aftermath of World War II. Some nuclear physicists walked away from the new atomic weapons program, but in time drifted back. According to Robert Jungk's 1958 book, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists, program director General Leslie R. Groves later remarked, "What happened is what I expected, that after they had this extreme freedom for about six months their feet began to itch, and as you know, almost every one of them has come back into government research, because it was just too exciting."

This isn't just about having access to technological candy. In some fields young researchers may feel compelled to play ball with the Pentagon, because no one else has the resources to bring their futuristic visions to life. Even space exploration, often seen as a peaceful endeavor, has always been bonded tightly with the military. DARPA started as a space agency, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory started as a military program. The final crew roster of the ill-fated Columbia shuttle is revealing: Six of the seven were military officers (one with Israel's forces) and the seventh, Kalpana Chawla, researched as a civilian the airflows surrounding the marines' Harrier attack aircraft.

While the shuttle routinely performs secret military missions, several scientists note that some universities and individuals won't work on classified projects because they want their data available for peer review. But Federation of American Scientists policy analyst Steven Aftergood observes, "I don't know of anyone who just won't accept Department of Defense funding. In many fields, and for many people, there's no alternative. There are all kinds of areas of technology development only the DOD will fund. At a time when money is tight, most people don't have the luxury of categorically excluding an entire agency funder."

For example, DARPA is the second largest supporter of nanotechnology, after the National Science Foundation, according to Mihail Roco, director of the National Nanotechnology Initiative.

While it may be possible to carve out a rewarding technology career without Pentagon support, Kuiper concedes that he had to switch from cognitive maps to A.I. in medicine because, like Potter's father, "I found that the only funding agency that was interested in supporting my research wanted to build smart cruise missiles."

But didn't those very missiles, with their high-tech guidance systems, dramatically reduce civilian casualties compared with other bombing campaigns in history? In addition, much Pentagon research is truly defensive. "A chemical and biological agent detection system is the kind of thing you want in the New York subway system so that first responders know what they're dealing with, and isolate it and save lives," says Captain John Hobday of ONR, which has a $2 billion science and technology program. "And how is artificial blood or a blood clotter anything but defensive?"

Clearly much of the military research is geared toward weapon making. But is that categorically wrong? Many people would be hard-pressed to draw moral equivalence between U.S. troops and some of their foes—the bombers of the UN HQ in Baghdad, or the Taliban. Kuiper and Potter are avowed pacifists; most are not. Though Kei Koizumi, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program, worries about cuts in other sciences, like climate studies, he admits that "the current set of priorities for federal R&D is understandable considering recent events."

Stanford University Nobel laureate in physics Douglas Osheroff was part of the panel investigating the Columbia disaster. His eyes were also the third pair to see into the center of the Milky Way—courtesy of the U.S. Air Force. As an undergraduate he was part of a group that peered into the heart of the galaxy by using infrared wavelengths, which can penetrate obscuring dust. But he's no naive rube. "Really, what we were doing was creating a bright background template to differentiate incoming ICMs," he recalls. "The work was very valuable scientifically and good for the country and defense. I think there's nothing wrong with that kind of research."

Potter is unmoved even though times have changed and the big spenders at the Pentagon aren't pouring money into the dubious scheme of Mutually Assured Destruction.

"Surprise, surprise, it is different," he says. "Not different enough for me. Just think about the sheer magnitude of what hundreds of billions of dollars we spend on military efforts could do if spent on, for example, building schools in countries that need them, or creating diplomacy centers like the Carter Center, or informative research and practical solutions like those of the Union of Concerned Scientists."

Or on robots built to help people, not kill them.


Related Story:
"'Freewheeling Zealots': DARPA, the Dark Star of Defense" by George Smith

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