Of equal importance are questions about where and how we should use the new weapons we have bought. In his first term, Obama ended up not just authorizing counterterrorism drone strikes, but also drone strikes in a Libyan civil war that no one had planned for, as well as the first quasi-offensive use of cyber weapons, using a piece of malware publicly known as Stuxnet to disrupt Iran's nuclear program -- an amazing capability the president had not even heard of when he launched his presidential run. So too will the winner of this election have to decide whether to authorize the use of real weapons they never imagined in unanticipated operations taking place in locations not currently on their radar screen.
And these technologies won't stay only in U.S. hands -- more than 50 nations have military robotics programs, and groups that range from jewel thieves to terrorists have also used drones. So the next president will have to weigh the consequences of everything from the global proliferation of robotic weapons to the long-term legal precedents he is willing to set for future presidents.
The dilemmas posed by advances in robotics won't be limited to drone warfare. The candidates didn't face a question on it in the debates, but in the next four years, what was once exclusively a weapon of war will become a regular part of American life and commerce. (Estimates put the future American drone market value at more than $45 billion.)
With the Federal Aviation Administration set to open up U.S. airspace to civilian drone use by 2015, President Obama or Romney will have to navigate a similar set of ripple effects on the domestic side. What kind of licensing controls should determine who can operate these civilian drones and where? What protections should be in place for privacy?
Robots also play an important role in the economic growth and jobs issue that is supposedly central to this election, but in a way few want to discuss. If the candidates really want to deal with where our jobs are going, they have to face the fact that the long-term disconnect between growth and unemployment patterns is not about outsourcing or tax rates. As a recent MIT study found, automation is "destroying jobs and creating prosperity," explaining both the gains in efficiency and the loss of as many as 6 million jobs over the last decade. Robots are a large part of the reason the automobile companies of Detroit are back, but so many automobile workers are not back to work. (Already, 1 in 10 has been replaced by a factory line robot, with many companies across a wide array of industries planning to fully automate their assembly lines.)
Technology is never an issue that directly sways voters in presidential elections. But it is a crucial force that shapes the opportunities and challenges the winners of these elections ultimately have to face. Put another way, the only robots likely to matter on Nov. 6th will be robo-callers annoying voters. But when the next president closes that Oval Office door for the last time, how he answers these many questions of policy related to robotics will be a key legacy he leaves behind.
Unfortunately, it looks like we'll just have to wait to find out what he thinks about the matter.