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Political Power and Robots

November 14, 2011

Economic power is distributed more or less by productivity. The more you satisfy the wants and needs of your fellow man, the more they will pay you and the more you can direct economic resources to suit your wants and needs. Political power is distributed more or less by capacity for violence. The more you are able to take and destroy, the more you can allocate through coercion. Political systems require a comparative advantage in violence, or they will be conquered by an outside force. Likewise, without internal control of violence, a state will descend into chaos and lawlessness.

As military technology changes, the steepness of human political heirarchy changes as well. When military technologies require large numbers of people to cooperate in order to be effective, political structures will likewise involve mass participation. In ancient Greece, the phalanx was the most effective fighting style, and it required large numbers of highly disciplined warriors. Thus, the political structures had distributed power across the warrior class. Likewise, in Rome, the military was organized around well disciplined legionaries and the government was republican. After the Marian reforms, armies became professional, rather than civilian forces and owed their loyalty to the patricians who supported them. Because the military institutions changed to favor more narrow political heirarchy, the Republic fell and was replaced by a dictator. The stirrup improved the relative effectiveness of mounted warriors, who tended to be from the upper classes of society. Warriors needed to have well trained war horses and time to train in mounted combat. Hence, the social structures of the Middle Ages were more heirarchical than in the ancient world. It is no accident that the widespread usage of gunpowder coincided with a flattening of political structures as well. When a lowly peasent could take down a fully armored knight, political structures had to change to reflect the new military reality. Governments who were able to provide the masses with reason to support them could emerge victorious in the field of battle. To this day, maintaining capacity for violence is a highly labor intensive activity.

Military robots are quite frightening from a political standpoint. When the elites are able to maintain a powerful army without the support of the masses, they can form a political system which does not require the support of the masses. Perhaps the distribution of resources will be wide enough that people will be able to maintain distributed political power, but I’m not so sure. Cheap effective military robots are perhaps the biggest long run threat to democracy.

If the Iranians can disable a drone, surely the people of the United States could as well, were our military to turn the drones on us.
Drones are getting smaller and more accessible to normal people.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 15, 2011 2:02 pm

    Military robots are only a threat so long as only the “elites” can control them. But to control them they must communicate with them, and if they can communicate with them, that communication channel can be hacked. That’s one line of defense.

    If the robots are autonomous, then you have the sci-fi threat of robots thinking for themselves. More realistically, autonomous robots are really really stupid and not very effective at doing what you want.

    Finally, as technology increases, these robots can become available to many more people. Cannons were only useful to large armies. It was only with the miniaturization to handguns that gunpowder empowered the masses. Commoditization can come to robots as well.

    • November 16, 2011 2:20 pm

      I hope you are right. If economic distributions are equitable, then robots will help everyone to maintain some capacity for violence and if viruses win the arms race with robots, we’ll be fine. The other major issue I completely ignored was the impact of both institutions and morality, which can go a long way in explaining the differences between countries.


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