It might only weigh four ounces, but the Department of Defense is promising big benefits from “The Bat” – a robotic, bat-like spy plane that would gather information in combat zones. The project is a collaborative effort between several researchers across the country, and for $10 million, the University is developing the plane’s software and sensor package. While the project’s appeal as a James Bond-like gadget might be entrancing, people shouldn’t be taken in – our campus isn’t the right place for designing war tools.
Like a real bat, the spy plane will use radar technology to steer itself through combat areas that may be too dangerous for soldiers. The Bat’s “brain” will use cameras and microphones and transmit information back to soldiers. It also will be able to scavenge energy sources like solar power and water to recharge its batteries.
The plane could save lives by making combat safer for our soldiers, which is a noble goal. But it’s the implications for the University that make this project troubling, not the project itself. The Bat may not be a controversial project, but maybe it should be.
Only in recent decades has the connection between academia and the military become so explicit. Increasingly, private contractors like Halliburton and Raytheon aggressively recruit our most talented students. They also donate heavily to the University. And now more than ever, universities are being recruited to develop military technology, often designing small parts for larger projects. The University has been a key player in military research, receiving $49 million from the Department of Defense in the 2007 fiscal year.
Computerized warfare technology like this one raise important ethical questions. On one hand, it saves lives. On the other hand, it makes war easier to sell, promising faster, more efficient wars with lower body counts – at least for our side. Consider America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States has technology hundreds of times more advanced than the Taliban or Iraqi insurgents. Yet our flashy weapons haven’t brought America victories in these wars. In the case of Iraq, it has protected Americans, keeping our death toll to just 4,003, but it has contributed to the millions of Iraqi deaths frequently ignored in the discussion of the war.
The University is enmeshed in this dilemma when it doesn’t need to be. Instead of working on projects with broad social benefits, talented researchers are working on well-funded military projects like The Bat. While many of the technologies developed in these projects can be applied to the advancement of society, they can be developed without specifically being funneled through the military first. The broad benefits should be the main point of research, and the University must be vocal in pointing this out.
The military is not inherently evil. However, it does not need to have its hand in every aspect of our society. The University should be minimizing its role in war and questioning even the most minimal influences the military has here. America already has a bloated military-industrial complex. It doesn’t need a bloated military-industrial-academic complex too.