Is 'Robocop' real? The future of warfare is already here

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The reality of a "Robocop" U.S. military isn’t science-fiction any more. So says the director of the ’80s cult classic reboot.

“We already have the drones, we’re going to have robots soon,” José Padilha told in a conversation about the automation of violence in combat.

“It’s going to happen, which means that every single country will have to have legislation and decide whether they’re going to use robots for war or not, which means that they’re going to have negotiations at the U.N., and they’ll decide what will be accepted and what won’t be accepted and so forth.

“This is a real issue. It’s bigger than people hunting animals remotely, and it’s bigger than using drones.”

Gen. Robert Cone, head of the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, acknowledged recently that robotic warfare is coming, explaining that the Army is working toward becoming “a smaller, more lethal, deployable and agile force” by replacing soldiers with robots and unmanned platforms.

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“I’ve got clear guidance to think about what if you could robotically perform some of the tasks in terms of maneuverability, in terms of the future of the force,” Cone said last month at the Army Aviation Symposium in Arlington, Va. “There are functions in the brigade that we could automate — robots or manned/unmanned teaming — and lower the number of people that are involved, given the fact that people are our major cost.”

Paul Verhoeven directed the original “Robocop” in 1987. As in Padilha’s reboot, the movie portrayed a fallen cop in the future who is transformed into a man-machine hybrid, programmed to rid a violent, terrorized Detroit of crime.

“The connection between machines and the automation of violence and fascism is pretty clear — and Verhoeven saw that,” Padilha said. “He created a character who embodied that. So, Robocop is a man who is fighting against the directives of the machine.”

Padilha cited a recent report in the U.K.’s Telegraph in which Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, warned about the ethical concerns of automated warfare.

“There’s a danger that something that feels easy to do and without risk to yourself, almost antiseptic to the person shooting,” said McChrystal told the BBC’s “Today” show. “And so if it lowers the threshold for taking operations because it feels easy, there’s danger in that.”

Removing human soldiers from warfare would also remove conflicts of conscience from the act of war, according to Padilha.

“I mean, America got out of Vietnam because American soldiers were dying and there was a lot of pressure on them to stop the war,” the Brazilian director said. “America got out of Iraq because soldiers were dying. Now, when you take away the soldiers and you replace them with robots, what’s going to happen?

“Or think about it in another way: if the state gives an order to a policeman and the order is really preposterous and violent, the policeman can say no — he can revoke it and argue. But if you put a machine in there, there is no criticism.

“There’s even a third way to think about it, which is every single police department or war group – the perpetrator of atrocities — has been trained to be brainwashed to behave mechanically.”

While the reboot of “Robocop” still has plenty of shoot ‘em up violence, the principal characters are named after famous philosophers; Hubert Dreyfus, (Zach Grenier's character, Senator Hubert Dreyfuss) Wilfrid Sellers (Michael Keaton’s character, Raymond Sellars, the CEO of OmniCorp) and Jonathan Bennett (Gary Oldman’s character, Dr. Dennett Norton) — which is no accident.

“Are we just machines, just physical machines, or is there something different in human beings?” Padilha asked. “Those issues we talk about in the movie — they’re there, embedded in the scenes. In the movie, we have the emotional core, the love of Alex Murphy for his family, enabling him to recover his humanity and to overcome the machine.

“In a certain sense, you can think about it metaphorically. If you have an army of robots and you go into Tehran and you have everybody come out of their houses with their hands up for a non-invasive scanning procedure — you don’t do that to people you really love, do you? I mean, this is dehumanizing. At a certain level, the way you fight the automation of violence is by making relationships human.”

But Padilha is under no illusion that “Robocop” is going to change the world.

“We don’t solve the problems of society on the screen,” he said. “We just put them there so people can think about them.