October 1996

Root Page of Article: Coming Out of the Closedt World, by John Horberg

Fully Automated

Receiving special attention throughout Edwards' text is the notion of automatic and perfectly responsive computer-controlled systems. One shortcoming of Edwards' effort is that he does not spend enough time explaining just why we crave this automatic control and protection.

His diagnosis, however, is clear: warfare is inherently too complex and contingent on unknowable factors, and programming it completely is out of the question:

Perhaps the most telling irony, from the perspective of closed-world discourse, was that the automatic control SAGE promised was then, and remains today, largely an illusion. Whatever the abilities of the computers and their programs, much of the total task still remained to human operators and their organization. Attempts to "program" this part of the work -- in the form of formal procedures encoded in manuals -- always faltered against the unruly complexities not yet enclosed within the system.

What Edwards doesn't get to, is the idea that SDI had to be fully automatic, only partly because of technical constraints. The other reason is one of the main unstated themes of the book -- that people are unwilling to make tough moral decisions themselves, not only on an individual basis (Edwards does note the problem of whether or not any individual commander will launch his missiles when so ordered.) but as a cultural or human weakness in ourselves. We want computers to make the really hard decisions to so relieve us of the responsibility, especially when they turn out badly. ^

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