Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Rise of Large Private Armies

I recently listened to a very disturbing discussion on NPR radio about the growth of the private security forces being used in Iraq. The interview was with Jeremy Scahill, author of the book Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. This is partly a story about Blackwater, but it goes well beyond that.

There are now over 40,000 private security forces in Iraq, over 180,000 if you include people hired by the U.S. to do non-security work (cooking, cleaning...). That's more than the total number of military troops we have there. Blackwater is providing security for all our diplomats and top military officials. Even General Petraeus has become dependent on Blackwater to provide his own personal security. But Iraq is just the beginning. There are plans to pay these private security forces in the "drug wars" in South America, and Blackwater is lobbying to get the contract to guard the boarder with Mexico. The amount of money they stand to receive from these contracts is substantially more than the billions they're currently getting paid for the work in Iraq.

Blackwater, the largest and most infamous of these private security forces, has been in the news recently for its excessive use of force and careless killing of civilians in Iraq. It has really become a private "army for hire", with enough capability to take on the militaries of some small countries already. And they're growing considerably in size, fire power, intelligence gathering capabilities, and influence. . While they are currently being hired mainly by the U.S. government, in principle they could be hired by any government or corporation with enough money and the motivation. These companies have no oversight by the U.S. military or apparently any other U.S. laws when operating overseas. Unlike the U.S. military, they're not subject to control by an elected official, international treaties (such as the Geneva Conventions), or often even by a board of directors. Blackwater is a privately-held company and does not publish much information about internal affairs.

But the most troubling possibility is that they can become an "army for hire" for use within the U.S. boarders. There are many legal restrictions about deploying the U.S. military again U.S. citizens on American soil. These restrictions do not apply for private security firms. Black water was already hired to provide security in several states after hurricane Katrina - a dry run for future projects. Imagine a future president that decided to hire Blackwater to provide security for all Federal property during a major protest demonstration in Washington D.C. that over 100,000 people were expected to attend. Imagine if these security operations included gathering intelligence on all the groups that were potentially involved. And imagine if the orders were given to break up the demonstration because of some perceived danger after it started? If this doesn't frighten you, then you probably don't fully appreciate what could happen. (Of course people who consider "obedience and respect for authority" to be among their most valued moral principles may find this scenario appealing.)

You may think that we can control and rein in such private security firms if they get too out of control at some point, so why worry now? But this may be next to impossible once they get too large with too much political influence and the money to buy even more, plus more extensive intelligence capabilities to collect damaging info on any perceived opponent, and once they start to be considered indispensable because of the security they are providing for top government officials. They are already considered indispensable to our oversees military and diplomatic operations.

An economic market has some great features, but there are some situations where it does not work at all. One of these is privatizing our military and intelligence operations. A key component of any sovereign government is a monopoly on the use of force and violence within its boarders, and for very good reasons. If private individuals or companies are able to assemble (or hire) their own military and intelligence forces with enough capabilities to rival those of small countries, we will enter a dangerous new era that will undoubtedly have many painful lessons to teach us. This is one dark side of future possibilities that is not getting nearly the attention it deserves.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Future Has Just Arrived

The Peak Oil phenomena has been predicted for a while now, and is expected to mark a major turning point in the history of our industrial society. Well, according to a new report just released by the German-based Energy Watch Group, Peak Oil has already occurred - in 2006. World oil production will begin to fall from this point on for the rest of humankind's existence on this planet. And the fall in production is expected to be a rather rapid 7% a year. This report is more pessimistic than others because it relies on actual production numbers, rather than estimates of the oil in left in the ground (which can be inflated for political and business reasons). Meanwhile, the demand for oil will attempt to keep rising as China and India grow their consumption rates. This report is certainly consist ant with the price of oil reaching a new peak of over $90 a barrel last week.

In addition to this news, the effects of climate change are hitting earlier than expected in the United States. Massive wild fires are devastating parts of southern California and severe draught conditions are causing major problems with Atlanta. Recent measurements of the Artic sea ice shows that it has been melting much faster than even the worst case predictions.

Add to that the chain of major economic instabilities now hitting the market in the technically bankrupt U.S. economy (see my post on Sept 2nd) .

People have been talking about these future problems for a while now. Well, it's official, the future is now here. Prepare for an increasingly exciting ride from now on.

Meanwhile, the Democrats in Congress seem to be unable to rally enough support and determination to make any major progress or for the most part provide any compelling vision. And the Republican presidential candidates are just arguing about who is the most conservative.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Will You Marry a Robot?

I couldn't pass up commenting on this article by Roland Piquepaille. It seems that David Levy, a British artificial intelligence researcher, will publish a book in November titled “Love and Sex with Robots.” Levy claims that within a few decades, we will be able to produce robots that are so human like in their appearance, functionality, and in their expression of human-like emotions, that many people will be falling in love with them, having sex with them, and even marrying them.

I suspect that people will consider this possibility either very interesting, very disturbing, or both. Is it realistic? People do have a strong tendency to mistakenly project humans qualities into non-human things and develop emotional attachments to them. Consider how common it is for people to treat pets as if they were cute little human children. Admittedly pets are emotional beings that people can develop relationships with, but all too often people mistakenly project too many human characteristics on them. It seems like a natural tendency we have.

People claim they "fall in love with their cars" all the time. (Personally, I have enough trouble developing relationships with humans. I never understood how people can develop strong emotional attachments to a hunk of rusting metal that you will discard in a few years, but I digress...) I think it's only a matter of time before people develop emotional attachments to computer controlled mobile objects (i.e. robots). Sexual activity with them could happen well before this. The market for this is potentially huge.

Is this a good or bad thing for society? I've heard that there is a declining trend in some Muslim communities for men to marry. They instead "marry their television", which is a slang expression for turning their attention to the newly available porn available on satellite TVs. This also suggest that adult version of online virtual reality ( "2nd Life", or other big multiplayer games) is a huge market just waiting to be tapped. The potential for addiction is great here, and the impact on the ability to develop relations with real humans is something to be concerned about.

So computer related sex - yes, it will continue to evolve and become more sophisticated than today's online porn. Computer marriage? No. Marriage is a different type of thing. It is a commitment on a deeper emotional level between humans with all their idiosyncrasies and faults. It is a commitment to share finances, goals, emotional support, sacrifices, physical support in case of accident or illness, and to grow old together. This is not the relationship you have with non-human things. I'm not sure I want to sacrifice to meet my robot's needs, which is a fundamental aspect of marriage. I expect the preferred relationship with robots will be more like a friendly servant - potentially one with "side" benefits.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Nobel Prize and Climate Change

I couldn't be more pleased that Al Gore was just awarded the Nobel Peace prize this year. President Bush, for all his faults, had the decency to say that he was pleased that Gore had won the award. That was more than can be said for some other right wing commentators with less integrity and class who appear to still view this as an ideological struggle. Such politically motivated denial will go down as a sad chapter when the future history text books write about this time.

Global climate change will continue to grow as one of the key issues facing humankind in the coming decades. It's not a political or ideological issue, at least it shouldn't be. The scientific support for this is overwhelming and continues to grow each year. Yes there is some uncertainty, but remember that uncertainty cuts both ways. The official projections from the IPCC panel tries to project a middle ground. That means there is a 50% chance that the results will be worse than these projections.

A recent posting at the Daily KOS does a good job of reminding everyone of this, and points out that the most recent data on decreases in sea ice in the Artic is actually showing changes much more severe than the best official predicted changes. So yes, in this aspect of climate change the data clearly shows the best scientific projections were wrong. They were much too opptimistic.