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Military Money in Optics Research
May 2011
May. 19, 2011 — As federal funding for research has generally stagnated over the past decade or so, investigators have sought other sources of support, including grants from the military and assorted security agencies. To be sure, optics technologies have been developed for a range of defense applications in recent years – from night vision technology to sensors used in unmanned ground and airborne vehicles such as the Predator, to lasers designed to jam missile sensors.

The increase of military support for scientific research has, in some corners at least, led to a bit of hand-wringing. In a recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education , John Horgan, a science journalist and director of the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology, described his ambivalence at being asked by the National Counterterrorism Center in 2005 to come up with ideas on fighting terrorism (he eventually accepted). Then he delved into some of the questions such support might raise.

Horgan said he occasionally brings scholars to Stevens to give talks about the militarization of research. One of these was Peter W. Singer, a security analyst at the Brookings Institute. Singer, whose 2009 book, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century explores the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence, for example, on modern warfare, was interested in the impact of using unmanned ground and airborne vehicles.

He was especially concerned about the next generation of military robots, which could include autonomous robots incorporating artificial intelligence, thus freeing them from the immediate control of human operators. Horgan continued:

“Advocates of autonomous robots assert that—again, in principle—they should be less likely than humans to commit mistakes. Singer worried that, given the complexities of combat and the limits of technology, robots will inevitably make poor decisions, just as human soldiers do. If a robot commits a war crime, Singer asked, who should be held accountable?”

Horgan also welcomed Jonathan Moreno, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist and author of the 2006 book Mind Wars: Brain Research and National Defense. In his talk, Moreno discussed “the militarization of neuroscience,” including the possibility of using brain scanning technologies to read prisoners’ minds. (This is not quite as fantastical as it sounds; researchers have already proposed using near-infrared spectroscopy as a sort of lie detector, for instance.)

Horgan emphasized that neither Singer nor Morena believes military research to be inherently immoral. But as we develop new technologies for military and security applications, they — and Horgan himself — advocate “open and vigorous debate” as to the pros and cons of research in these areas.

Brookings InstitutedefenseDifferent WavelengthsGary Boas BlogJohn HorganJonathan MorenoMind Wars: Brain Research and National DefenseNational Counterterrorism CenterPeter W. SingerSensors & DetectorsStevens Institute of TechnologyThe Chronicle of Higher EducationUniversity of PennsylvaniaWired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century

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