Technology and War


The Portals are multimedia collections covering a variety of issues relating to drones. For our full list of portals, click here.

In his novel The Glass Bees, Ernst Junger tells the story of an aging soldier who, in a job interview with a wealthy inventor, is confronted by an astonishing technological development: swarms of tiny mechanical glass bees that work together to accomplish incredible tasks. Although The Glass Bees was published in 1957, Junger’s vision of swarms of bee-drones is not altogether distant from some conceptions of the future of war. In the 14 years since American engineers cobbled together the means to fly drones over Afghanistan from the United States, drones have become a touchstone for both the rapidly evolving capabilities of modern militaries and the serious legal and ethical challenges that these new technologies present.

Lately, the debate over future weapons technology has taken on an international dimension. The United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) has taken up the issue of whether to ban the development, production and use of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS), also known as “killer robots.” This Portal brings together podcasts, lectures, and panel discussions that address a few of the historical, political, military, ethical, and technological issues involved in thinking about the role of technology in war.

This Portal is curated by Dan Gettinger.

Description: “Can replacing human soldiers with robot warriors save lives and make war more humane? We try to find out in this episode. But as we learn, the laws of war are not written in computer code. Modern warfare is not ready for killer robots that “decide” without human input.”

Description: “The twenty-first century’s information revolution creates networked, multi-player, and open-ended conflicts that occupy a grey zone between war and peace. Emile Simpson will propose that this type of dispute is the new normal. His talk will analyse the challenges that arise from this phenomenon and suggest appropriate strategic responses.”

Description: “When it comes to the kinds of threats we face, our world used to be a more straight forward place. Declarations of war were between nation states. Only countries with the technical know-how could make a nuclear bomb. But as authors Benjamin Wittes and Gabriella Blum say in their new book, we are facing a future where we all could walk around with a weapon of mass destruction in our pocket – in other words our cell phones. Technological advances mean, more than ever, every person has the capacity to attack individuals and states, which raises fundamental questions about the role of governments in protecting their citizens.”

Description: This conference included lectures, roundtable discussions, and musical performances that considered issues relating to technology, law, philosophy and politics. “What does it mean to be human amidst super-human technological advances?” Keynote lectures by Ray Kurzweil (26:03), Ron Arkin (493:08), and Sherry Turkle (425:44) may prove to be especially useful in the context of this Portal.

Description: In this lecture, Professor Saxon considers whether new technologies meet the principles of proportionality and distinction in International Humanitarian Law (IHL). He is particularly concerned with the legal and ethical challenges posed by autonomous machines. Professor Saxon is a former prosecutor of the International Criminal Court of Former Yugoslavia.

Description: “Master storyteller Malcolm Gladwell tells the tale of the Norden bombsight, a groundbreaking piece of World War II technology with a deeply unexpected result.”

Description: “Shane [Harris] came into the Brookings studio this week for Episode #100 of the podcast and talked with me about U.S. cyber operations during the surge in Iraq, about the penetration of U.S. defense contractors by the Chinese, and about the growing industry of companies devoted to going on offense against cyber-attackers.”

Description: “[Ben Barry] tells Owen Bennett-Jones that vehicles are destined to become more autonomous. Considerable investment by the US military and major defence firms like Lockheed Martin is driving forward development of military ground drones.”

Description: “P.W. Singer talked about his book Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, published by Penguin Press. In his book he explores the rise of robotic warfare, technology, and the impact of this shift on future wars. He showed slides as he talked about the use of robots as sentries, spies, bomb disposal, and predator drones. He talked about the perspectives of the actors involved in this robotic revolution. He answered questions from members of the audience”

  • “Sustaining the U.S. Lead in DoD Unmanned Systems: Part One and Part Two” — Center for Strategic and International Studies // Audio // 01:51:00 // May 20, 2014

Description: “The current U.S. military lead in unmanned systems will be contested in the coming decades as other countries develop or acquire their own capabilities (including through significantly increased commercial sector activity) and Pentagon investment in current and next-generation unmanned systems decreases under budget pressure. With the release of the Quadrennial Defense Review and the Fiscal Year 2015 Presidential Budget Request reflecting updated DoD priorities, CSIS hosts a discussion on the future of U.S. leadership in military development and use of unmanned systems.”

Description: “20YY Warfare Initiative Project Director Paul Scharre delivers a presentation on autonomous technologies and unmanned systems at CNAS’ Eighth Annual National Security Conference.”



Junger, Ernst, and Louise Bogan. The Glass Bees. New York: New York Review, 2000. Print.

McNeill, William Hardy. The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000. Pbk. ed. Chicago [IL: U of Chicago, 1984. Print.

Parker, Geoffrey. The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.

Singer, P. W. Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the Twenty-first Century. New York: Penguin, 2010. Print.


Photo credit: University of Pennsylvania GRASP Lab and YouTube