Books

Future wars could be fought by robots, but there are plenty of stories to be told of the part technology played in past conflicts.

Wired For War

By PW Singer, Penguin, £19.99

Peter Singer begins his comprehensive overview of military robotics by confessing that he thinks robots are "frakin' cool". By the time you've met robots that that can fly, swim, crawl, leap and even change shape, robots that can hunt in packs or shoot down mortar rounds in microseconds, and robots that can read emotions or plan campaigns, you might just agree with him.

For the world of warfare is changing, and changing fast. When US forces first invaded Iraq in 2003, they had no robotic ground forces whatsoever. This year, they have over 12,000 robotic systems on active service. In the air, the numbers are even more dramatic: the US military now has twice as many robotic drones as manned aircraft.

Robots allow commanders to see further, strike harder and think bigger than ever before - and all without risking a single soldier's life. 'Wired for War' reveals (and revels in) the breath-taking array of robots now taking to the battlefield, from tracked warriors packing electromagnetic guns to water-walking spy-bots. Inevitably, though, the most interesting stories in this fascinating book about technology are the human voices - the scientists tinkering in cutting-edge laboratories, the soldiers reporting anecdotes fresh from the frontline, and the author himself.

Singer proudly parades his pop-culture knowledge of 'Transformers', 'The Matrix' and 'Star Wars' (did you spot his 'Battlestar Galactica' reference?) but he's not afraid to tackle some tough questions. Do soldiers place too much trust in fallible technology, such as the Aegis missile system that shot down an Iranian Airbus? What does it mean to be 'at war' when drone pilots are flying missiles and dropping bombs from air-conditioned cubicles in suburbia? And does cheap, open source robotic equipment herald a future of home-made suicide bomber-bots?

As you might expect from a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think-tank, Singer is well placed to examine the socio-economic implications of this robotics revolution. He argues that while the US military currently has the world's biggest robot army, its spending is unfocused and many of its influential generals are stubbornly resisting change. China, on the other hand, makes most of the commercial electronic and robotic equipment in the world, and may already be converting hundreds of its fighter planes to high-performance drones.

This rigorously researched and highly readable book details the speed with which fighting robots have moved from a science-fiction staple to a military, political and ethical reality. The truth seems to be that wired warriors are here to stay. But whether they end up as Terminators or Wall-Es? That's up to all of us.

Reviewed by Seattle-based technology journalist Mark Harris

War Stories

If there's one aspect of conflict where robots are unlikely to ever replace humans, it's taking the lead role in war movies. Outside the anthropomorphic world of cartoons like Disney's 'Wall-E', why would audiences care if a machine makes it through to the final credits or ends up as wreckage? As three new books demonstrate, there are still plenty of intriguing true stories of the role technology and the people behind it played in the Second World War waiting to be turned into scripts.

In 'Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age' (MIT Press, £20.95), Kurt W Beyer sets out to look behind the established story of the computing pioneer whose decision to leave a comfortable life in academia and sign up with the US Navy after Pearl Harbor placed her at the heart of an emerging discipline. Beyer's attempt to reveal a more authentic Hopper, a "vibrant, complex and intriguing woman", doesn't mean that he ignores the technical impact of her achievements. As a portrait of someone whose life was altered irrevocably by war and who played a part in shaping the world as it is today, this is a fascinating read.

If Quentin Tarantino's recent attempt to reinvent the war movie wasn't to your taste, how about another story of an elite Allied unit fighting in occupied Europe, but this time with a task of seizing the more useful asset of Nazi military technology rather than enemy scalps.

'T-Force: The Race for Nazi War Secrets, 1945' by Sean Longden (Constable, £20) is based on a detailed trawl through surviving archives and interviews with the soldiers involved in the top secret group formed from commandos, bomb disposal engineers and expert scientists. Their exploits from March 1945 onwards culminate in smuggling German scientists out of the Soviet Zone and set the scene for the Cold War technology race that was to follow.

Historian James Delgado, author of 'Nuclear Dawn' (Osprey, £20), is president of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, and the most interesting part of his picture-heavy take on the story of the Atomic Bomb from the Manhattan Project through to the Cold War is the description of the tests carried out in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to assess the potential of nuclear arms.

The Operation Crossroads blasts at Bikini, in which battle-damaged enemy vessels were used for target practice, were witnessed by tens of thousands, and Delgado admits, as much a political spectacle as a scientific test. Little consolation for the 167 locals who in March 1946 were loaded onto a ship along with the thatched roofs and wooden frames of their homes, with assurance that they could return once their islands had been used "for the good of mankind".

Dominic Lenton

Megadisasters: Predicting the next catasptophe

By Florin Diacu, Oxford University Press, £16.99

Florin Diacu is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Victoria, and he is not the luckiest of men - witness to disasters the likes of which most only see on television, Diacu explores the science behind ensuring the continued survival of the human race.

His book, aptly titled 'Megadisasters: Predicting the Next Catastrophe', is a study of preventative measures and an examination of the most traumatic of events, with a subsequent discussion of how things could have been, and should be, done differently. The book itself is simple in its composition, its chapters corresponding to a particular type of catastrophic phenomenon (from tsunamis to climate change and stock market crashes).

Diacu writes well, explaining fairly complex subjects rather simply. He deftly handles the history behind the science of predicting disasters, which comprises the bulk of most chapters, and the science itself is similarly accessible and fascinating. Diacu's use of anecdotal information grounds and humanises this history and exposition; after all, this is a book about a science wholly dedicated to saving lives, the gravity and importance of which we access only through a personal human lens. Diacu provides such a framework and drives his compelling narrative through the first- and second-hand accounts of mega-disasters: the story of 10-year-old Tilly Smith, for example, whose basic understanding of tsunamis (thanks to a geography lesson two weeks prior) allowed her to accurately predict the coming 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami on a beach in Thailand, saving hundreds.

Such powers of prediction would have proved invaluable in the recent Samoan earthquake, which claimed over 100 lives in the South Pacific. The science behind prevention and early warning is still young, but as Diacu shows, study even in a developing field can ensure the survival of many at risk.

Diacu's writing falters at times, especially when he explains the background of hard science that spans across many generations of scientists and researchers, leaving the reader a bit confused.

Indeed, the subject of 'Megadisasters' is quite fascinating: the study and application of predictive and preventative measures pose interesting challenges to scientists and engineers, who would do well to start with Diacu's work for a basic understanding of the field.

Diacu hopes to expound upon a subject that does not garner much attention, in an attempt to demonstrate the amount of work and dedication required by the "scores of people all over the globe [who] are trying to make this world a safer place".

Thanks to Professor Diacu's book, we too can now appreciate such benevolent efforts.

Reviewed by Alexey Novikov, E&T editorial assistant

Statistics for engineers: an introduction

By SJ Morrison, John Wiley & Sons, £39.95

Peter Drucker once noted that, "…the first duty - and the continuing responsibility - of the business manager… is to strive for the best possible economic results from the resources currently employed or available". To achieve this we must learn to direct, measure and control the key processes towards agreed business outcomes. That in turn requires us to understand the impact of natural process variation on the quality of the manufactured product and all other process outputs.

This process of understanding is far from complete. Too many business managers fail to realise that they are not in a position to make effective decisions unless and until they learn to distinguish the statistically significant from the insignificant; to separate, in other words, the data which might be relevant to a control decision from that which might not.

Too few engineers learn about process variability during their academic development. Processes do not begin with cutting metal; they begin with concepts and designs; and whether in R&D, design or production the engineer and the manager need relevant and simple tools to help them. The fact that the language of these tools may be unfamiliar is no defence; it must be learned if processes are to be controlled. In fact the language is not difficult to understand, and this book is an excellent introduction. It deserves to become a standard text to encourage the best in industrial practice.

It would be unforgivable if we continued to ignore the search for process understanding through decision-making based upon appropriate measurement. SJ Morrison's book, publication of which is a triumph of persistence over downright obscurantism, shows how process management, specifically a grasp of the statistical analysis of process data, can transform our decision-making.

Reviewed by Dr Anthony Bainbridge

The joy of... algebra

Generations of maths teachers have tried to engage their students by couching the less exciting principles of their subject in real-world examples. In 'The Joy of X' (Chambers, £9.99), Michael Willers runs through the basics of algebra in a series of exercises, each of which has a twist and includes some intriguing historical background. There's not much new for E&T readers in the world where John, Paul, George and Ringo dig shared parabolic swimming pools and want to work out how far each one extends into their back gardens, but it's a great way of helping to explain quadratics, binomials and factorials to anyone with a less firm grounding. Some of the examples might need tweaking if they're not going to go over the heads of a younger audience. "Damon, Graham, Alex and Dave" might be better than "David, Stephen, Graham and Neil", the rockers who want to work out every permutation of order in which they can walk out on stage.

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