Dragons and Credible Commitments [Warning: Dubious Economic Theory and Game of Thrones Quasi-Spoilers]

by Henry on April 22, 2013

I hate to say it, but Matt Yglesias has just gone too far this time. If you want to apply simplistic economic arguments to complex social situations, you can’t just wave your hands and suggest that the market for dragons in Westeros and neighboring lands is riddled with Akerlof style information asymmetries and complementarity problems. Instead, you should be waving your hands and arguing that under reasonable assumptions, there isn’t a market for dragons in the first place. The problem isn’t an Akerlof-style one, where there are unobservable variations in quality between dragons. The actual qualities of dragons for plunder and conquest appear to be highly visible – the bigger your dragon, the better they are at toasting enemy armies (the slavers in the TV series know this, and go for the largest of the litter). The problem is that the actual good being bought and sold is not the dragon-as-a-physical-entity, but the loyalty of the dragon-as-a-physical-entity. And this simply isn’t a salable commodity, as best as we can tell from George R.R. Martin’s books and the television series. Daenerys can’t sell a set of affections which appear to be rooted in a quasi-maternal bond, based on the Targareyn bloodline, or some combination of the two. Dragons don’t seem to vary in this quality.

Furthermore, even if George R.R. Martin’s world was one in which Daenerys were somehow able to transfer the loyalties and affections of a dragon to another, this problem would still be insuperable, because dragons are so powerful. The buyer of the dragon’s loyalty could never be sure that Daenerys had actually ‘sold’ it, because loyalty is unobservable. Perhaps Daenerys and the dragon were simply waiting for the right moment to turn on them. And since dragons mature, and fully grown dragons can more or less do whatever the hell they want, Daenerys and the dragon are essentially too powerful (PDF) to make bargains that they have a long term incentive to keep. This is a classic form of Thomas Schelling’s credible commitment problem – Schelling remarks in The Strategy of Conflict that the right to be sued is very valuable, because it allows one to make credible commitments. Daenerys, with her dragons, is too powerful over the longer term to be able to make credible commitments.

Hence, the sale of the Unsullied could never occur in equilibrium. The slavers are offering a military asset whose loyalty is unimpeachably transferrable – once the Unsullied have a new master, they obey that master unquestioningly. This is why they are supposed to be so valuable (lots of dubious implications in there of course …). Daenerys is offering a military asset whose loyalty is at best unobservable. Therefore, it can’t be readily sold or exchanged. The exchange should never happen.

{ 85 comments }

1

Guan Yang 04.22.13 at 3:49 pm

There haven’t been dragons around in living memory. Even though you are probably right in your analysis of dragon loyalty, it’s not certain that the slavers are aware of this and understand the problem fully, since they’ve never dealt with one. Blinded by the allure of owning a dragon, they may naïvely think that dragons are slaves.

2

Henry 04.22.13 at 3:51 pm

But that would mean that they lack complete information! Which is obviously impossible in any market transaction.

3

mpowell 04.22.13 at 4:09 pm

No, I think MY pretty much gets it right. Kraznys doesn’t realize he’s about to be scammed by a young woman. That’s the only way this transaction goes through. Now, you are right about the overall market for dragons and the problems with it, but as Guan Yang points out nobody knows anything about dragons at this point. As you say, it’s not that the dragon is a lemon but that you’re not trading what you think you are (loyalty). At this stage of the game, that’s an information problem.

4

Rich Puchalsky 04.22.13 at 4:30 pm

It’s pretty clear, given the history of Westeros, that having control of a single adult dragon is probably enough to make you a continental ruler. This is why there were never dragon sales. For a fair deal, you’d have to trade most of a continent for one.

So for an unfair deal, the one “trade” in the first three books (after which I stopped reading) pretty much makes sense from both sides. Daenerys is trying to rip off the slavers by selling them a dragon that she plans to have immediately turn on them. They are trying to rip her off by selling her 6,600 slaves, which come nowhere near close to the dragon’s worth as a loyal adult. It makes sense for her to do this since she’s desperate. It makes sense for them to do this if their willingness to take risks is pretty high — they are risking the chance that they will be ripped off successfully against the chance of ruling a continent.

And yes, the slavers were stupid to sell an instantly loyal slave army that they had no immediate defense against. But if they hadn’t been as stupid, there’s nothing intrinsically off about the trade.

5

ajay 04.22.13 at 4:43 pm

And since dragons mature, and fully grown dragons can more or less do whatever the hell they want, Daenerys and the dragon are essentially too powerful (PDF) to make bargains that they have a long term incentive to keep.

In the short term, though, the situation is different. Right now the dragons are fairly small, certainly not combat sized – and, presumably, fairly killable. What you’re buying, then, is not a combat asset, but a hostage – rather a wise precaution when you’re dealing with a young woman from a conquer-happy family background with an army and some dragons, both growing at a rapid pace. It doesn’t matter if they have to keep the dragon chained up underground; what matters is that, as long as they have it under their control, they can threaten to kill it if Daenerys comes back and tries to capture their city.

6

ajay 04.22.13 at 4:44 pm

I know this isn’t the actual motive for the transaction, but it’s still the only one that makes sense.

7

chris 04.22.13 at 5:05 pm

Even though you are probably right in your analysis of dragon loyalty, it’s not certain that the slavers are aware of this and understand the problem fully, since they’ve never dealt with one.

Well, if they’re slavers, then they must be aware that occasionally some slaves rebel or run away and have to be brought back by bounty hunters or law enforcement, and then made an example of to intimidate the others into doing as they’re told. Wouldn’t it occur to them to wonder how that works for a dragon?

Westeros has neither the technology nor a sufficient number of dragons already socialized to obey orders to put down a dragon uprising if it started, I don’t think. But then, I haven’t read far enough into ASoIaF to know whether dragons in that universe are intelligent enough to be capable of something like that.

Now I’m imagining a crossover where Temeraire shows up to let them know that even if they *are* slaves in this society, they don’t need to stay that way…

Anyway, you’re not really buying the loyalty of a human slave, you’re buying the legal right to have society and the law enforce your ownership rights over that slave. Usually this is enough to get the slave to do what you want, if the law will actually back you up on this, because one human can’t fight a whole society and win and they know it. They don’t have to like it, and aside from some kind of Stockholm Syndrome, probably won’t, but they don’t really have a choice.

But if the dragons are powerful enough to be outside the law, then they can’t really be owned either; at most they can be recruited or allied with.

P.S. The one *modern* example of “trading” people I can think of, professional athletic teams, works because league rules say that if you’re traded, you accept the trade or quit the league and give up your career. So everyone accepts that as normal and goes along with it. Again, this doesn’t seem to generalize well to dragons. Power politics isn’t a league with rules; someone is highly likely to be willing to offer employment to a renegade dragon, maybe on better terms than they had with their previous employer, and possibly even send agents to subvert them to turn coat in the first place. The rewards of having a dragon the enemy thought was on their side turn coat in the middle of a battle could be large. This is bound to occur to someone.

8

chris 04.22.13 at 5:13 pm

What you’re buying, then, is not a combat asset, but a hostage

Doesn’t this assume that the person who is willing to sell you the dragon isn’t willing to let it die? That seems kind of questionable to me.

I think it makes more sense if they assume that if they raise and train the dragon, then it will be loyal to them and not to Daenerys (possibly even to the point that they can use it against hers if necessary). Whether this will actually work is questionable, but it’s not obviously nuts if they can operate on the kind of time scale necessary to raise the dragon to maturity in surroundings they control.

Probably they’re thinking of the dragon as more like an animal than like a person, which may or may not be a safe assumption.

9

Scott P. 04.22.13 at 5:15 pm

Two things I would add:

The other difference between dragons and Unsullied is that you can always make more Unsullied. They are a renewable resource whereas dragons are not. It’s not clear to me that Kraznys is motivated by the desire to use a dragon for continental domination (though I haven’t read the text recently, I could be wrong).

Second, it’s not the transferable loyalty of the Unsullied that allows Daenery’s doublecross, as I understand it. What binds the Unsullied to Daenerys is that she frees them. That’s what allows her to give the command to strike down the slavers. It’s safe to say that such a move is literally unthinkable for Kraznys.

Selling Unsullied presumably comes with a codicil that their new loyalty does not encompass obeying orders to attack the Astapori. It’s only the granting of freedom that allows Daenerys to use them against their former masters.

10

Hob 04.22.13 at 5:18 pm

The slavers aren’t exactly stupid, they’re just successful businessmen in a very stable society where the slave trade is totally taken for granted. You buy an army so you can sack all those other unimportant cities, and sell slaves from them– Kraznys encouraged Dany along those lines, on the assumption that some of her victims would become material for his next crop of Unsullied. What you don’t do is to blow up the entire economy of the known universe. The idea of a messianic world conqueror who’s against slavery on principle just isn’t on their radar.

11

Jeffrey Davis 04.22.13 at 5:40 pm

The proverb about owning a lion probably applied to dragons.

12

Matthew Yglesias 04.22.13 at 5:44 pm

It’s Henry who’s applying a simplistic economic argument here. As we both agree, under some pretty simple homo economicus assumptions it’s easy to see that this transaction could never happen. But when you bring the sociological dimension into the picture, you can see that Kraznar’s sexist and ageist concepts leave him open to exploitation. He’s so convinced of the impossibility that he’s being played, that he lets himself get played.

13

Medrawt 04.22.13 at 6:03 pm

Scott P. -

I don’t remember the precise order of events from the book, but in the show Dany doesn’t free the Unsullied until after she’s ordered them to kill the slavers; she confirms that they are under her control, and then she uses them and the dragon to wreak havoc. Kraznys and his ilk presumably wouldn’t conceive that Dany, having bought all the Unsullied, would turn them against the slavers because they can’t conceive of why there’d be a point – as Hob says, they don’t imagine that she would want to upend the social order of an entire corner of Essos. Besides which that kind of codicil goes against the whole point of the Unsullied as conceived by the Astapori – they are supposed to be literally thoughtless. You could contrive circumstances where, if there were such a standard rule, intrigue amongst the powerful of Slaver’s Bay led to all kinds of strain and interpretation of those binding obligations and get a whole Asimovian-robots kind of tension out of it … except that having that all play out in the heads of groups of men raised for nothing but battle, in the heat of the moment, would compromise their efficacy as warriors.

What’s stupid, aside from Kraznys’ personal biases, are the short memories of the slavers re: the history and legacy of the Valyrians and dragons; the Valyrians had a unique ability to control dragons, and the historical impact of dragons that we’ve been privy to is that they’re game changers. You should assume someone who commands dragons can do and desire things beyond your petty ken.

14

Anderson 04.22.13 at 6:28 pm

“What’s stupid, aside from Kraznys’ personal biases, are the short memories of the slavers re: the history and legacy of the Valyrians and dragons”

It’s like the way everyone in the Star Wars universe almost totally forgets about Jedi Knights and the Force, after only 20 years or so.

15

Rich Puchalsky 04.22.13 at 6:54 pm

“they can’t conceive of why there’d be a point – as Hob says, they don’t imagine that she would want to upend the social order of an entire corner of Essos. “

I don’t see it. They don’t have to imagine that someone wants to upend the social order; they only have to imagine that someone wants to go back on a deal that they just made. The slavers presumably can’t just kill and rob their clients, because they have a reputation to uphold or they won’t get any more clients. But the people who they sell to have no such reputation, except for being greedy would-be looters. Presumably the slavers normally never come near to selling their whole stock at once, and therefore keep enough slaves to protect themselves.

16

Anderson 04.22.13 at 7:03 pm

Maybe the problem boils down to this: you don’t have to be particularly smart to be a slaver. Just like CEOs turn out not to be geniuses, as a rule.

17

Medrawt 04.22.13 at 7:06 pm

Rich Puchalsky -

Well whaddaya want? They’re DUMB. They’re dumb to sell their whole stock of Unsullied. They’re dumb to think they can control a dragon. They’re dumb to think Daenerys would consider one dragon for 8K troops a fair deal. They’re dumb to not be worried about her intentions and attitudes. I’d say they’re dumb to be so dismissive and insulting of her just because they think she personally can’t speak the language, but while we’re at it they’re dumb to think she can’t speak the language.

18

Zamfir 04.22.13 at 7:35 pm

But dumb traders cannot exist, the creative destruction natural selection of the invisible hand takes care of that.

19

Zamfir 04.22.13 at 7:38 pm

If you’re in the armed-slaves-for-plunderers business, I bet that visible hands do a lot of selecting against the dumb as well.

20

Anderson 04.22.13 at 8:37 pm

“But dumb traders cannot exist, the creative destruction natural selection of the invisible hand takes care of that.”

Yes. Yes, it did.

21

ktward 04.22.13 at 9:35 pm

Oh FFS. Y’all really know how to sap every last drop of joy from Fantasy fiction. (Fwiw, I’m a fan of both Martin’s books and HBO’s series.)

I would never suggest that this literary genre doesn’t offer larger wisdoms and insights for us to chew on. But as much as I genuinely appreciate wonks and geeks, and I do, it’s precisely this kind of stuff — an insistence on pounding the square peg of fiction into the round hole of reality — that makes me want to slap you.

That said, I can easily forgive the folks here for it. In fact, this is exactly the kind of place that should feel free to explore such … stretches. Yglesias, otoh, has no excuse. I mean, he’s paid to be a serious commentator at a major news site. Now I have a doubt or two about his seriousness.

22

Anderson 04.22.13 at 9:45 pm

“an insistence on pounding the square peg of fiction into the round hole of reality”

Fantasy works because we suspend our disbelief, and suspension of disbelief requires a secondary world that doesn’t *correspond* to our own world, but which does *cohere*. It has to make sense on its own terms.

That said, this thread has been pretty tongue-in-cheek, compared to the firefights you can doubtless find re: the economics of the Harry Potter universe, or whether the destruction of the 2d Death Star exterminated the Ewoks.

23

Bruce Wilder 04.22.13 at 10:31 pm

the sale of the Unsullied could never occur in equilibrium

The whole feudal political system of Westeros and the isolated commercial systems of Essos could scarcely sustain social, political and economic equilibrium: the whole imagined world is presented as roiled by furious, self-destructive dynamics, but, at the same time, as resting upon foundations of continuity, tradition and reproductive stability going back hundreds and thousands of years, punctuated by distant, barely remembered cataclysms.

24

ktward 04.22.13 at 10:55 pm

Anderson-

I did actually pick up on the cheekiness here, though it’s probably hard to tell from my comment.

Martin’s relatively new to the pop culture arena, so just give it time. There’ll be firefights over Fire and Ice as well, just like Potter and Star Wars. Which is more or less my point. I’m mostly annoyed with MY, he’s helping to light the fire and, well, I’ve held him to higher editorial standards. But Slate’s blogging interface is kind of a hellhole and it was easier to vent here since I read y’all anyway. Nevertheless, clearly I intruded. Apologies.

25

StevenAttewell 04.22.13 at 11:29 pm

Doesn’t this assume perfect rationality? Kraznyz got greedy and got burned, in part because he was assuming Dany bought into the social conventions of slavery. You don’t kill the man who trains the Unsullied, because a. you’ll need more Unsullied later to replace your losses, and b. he’ll buy the people you capture.

Also, there is a market in dragon eggs as an ultra-luxury item, since they have to be brought all the way from the Shadowlands beyond Asshai, which is all the way to the east of the known world. Illyrio buys three for Dany to show off how filthy rich he is, we know from Viserys that 1 egg will buy a ship (a fleet I should think, but he’s using synecdoche), or an army, and 2 will buy a huge army.

26

shah8 04.23.13 at 12:08 am

Say, why *does* Slate put up with the hell-holeness of their commenting system? They lose a lot of marketing leverage from the lowered “Someone’s Wrong On The Internet!” impulse. A better system means better anal commentators than FactChecker.

As for this thread–This ain’t hard fantasy, let alone hard science fiction. The deal happens because the author wanted it to happen because the author thinks it’s cool like that. Trivial research of actual slave soldiers like Mamluks probably would have resulted in more interesting (if a bit more complex for the low reader) plot narrative/twist. Just as with the issues with Daenerys’ marriage to that mongol-whatever were reflective of greater perspective issues, it should be easy to see that no society on earth ever had a true chattel-style soldier slave (aside from the obvious examples in the mid-1800s in the US and Brazil, and they fought with freedom as a reward), and it was kind of messed up for the author to think that this is realistic at all, that you could maintain *thousands* or *tens of thousands* who will fight as told, especially in a 13th century world. Yglesias ought to do an economic analysis of the sheer deadweight maintenance this implies between customers. Moreover, fighting battles and engaging in sacks of cities are highly complex affairs generally ill suited anything remotely like chattel labor. If they were useful enough to themselves to kill the slavetraders, then they were probably useful enough to themselves to kill Daenerys, no matter how blue her blood is, and win their freedom that way. Before even that, normal slave traders, given their rep, would have quietly had Daenerys assasinated, and grabbed all of the dragons, whether the dragon’s loyalty is at stake or not. The leather, at least, would be valuable to some status-munching noble.

27

Zb 04.23.13 at 12:18 am

From the single correct point of view on the universe (the cold-bloodedly economic) isn’t the problem that Daenerys is being irrational by opposing slavery? Of course, since no one can be motivated by anything other than profit (and there can’t be a $20 bill on the ground), the invisible hand must crush her for having human values in addition to cash values. And all those crispy slavers will be vindicated (in the long run) for assuming that Cash Rules Everything Around Me.

28

Rich Puchalsky 04.23.13 at 12:23 am

“Illyrio buys three for Dany to show off how filthy rich he is, we know from Viserys that 1 egg will buy a ship (a fleet I should think, but he’s using synecdoche), or an army, and 2 will buy a huge army.”

There’s a big difference between an egg that’s expected to hatch and one that is expected to never hatch. By the time Illyrio bought dragon eggs, everyone thought (for good reason) that all remaining dragon eggs were dead. A dragon egg that will never hatch into a dragon is basically just a curiosity, and the ones that Illyrio bought wouldn’t buy armies until Dany actually hatched them.

And the people who say or imply above that the whole slaves-for-dragons scene is another example of Martin’s tired orientalism, well, yes. The slave traders are nasty and gross in the exact way that a school child raised on evil-Arab stories would expect them to be, and of course they are so stupid that they are easily tricked by a brave Western girl, and the slaves are mysteriously and totally commandable until freed, and so on.

29

Henry 04.23.13 at 12:39 am

Yep – it’s all tongue in cheek, as I assume MY’s is too. And if you can’t be allowed to have the occasional nonsensical post, I, for one, am going on strike for better working conditions (also: more pay (or better yet: some pay)).

30

prasad 04.23.13 at 1:02 am

Y’all really know how to sap every last drop of joy from Fantasy fiction. (Fwiw, I’m a fan of both Martin’s books and HBO’s series.) But as much as I genuinely appreciate wonks and geeks, and I do, it’s precisely this kind of stuff — an insistence on pounding the square peg of fiction into the round hole of reality — that makes me want to slap you.

Insufficiently geeky fans of scifi and fantasy often make this clueless argument. One of the joys of being a good geek is that you can enjoy a fantasy world, but also enjoy inspecting it for consistency, have fun tearing apart its premises, and have passionate arguments about whether in some counterfactual reality things would operate in this or the other manner. We like having these discussions. Your inability to enjoy fantasy except inasmuch as you fail to think about it is an interesting fact about you, no more.

31

ezra abrams 04.23.13 at 1:08 am

lets be honest – the big problem with books like this is that the authors write things that don’t happen in real life, because there is no way anyone would act like that.

That is, dragons, or magic are ok, but people still need to act in a realistic manner – the first rule of fiction writing, ca I imagine someone saying that.

It is not possible to imagine selling totally loyal slaves tht would turn on you

Martin is a good enough writer that this is an issue; other writers, far less talented (Eddings/belgariad, jordan/wheel of time) don’t have this problem because they can’t write well enough to create real characters

32

Sharon 04.23.13 at 1:21 am

or whether the destruction of the 2d Death Star exterminated the Ewoks.

One can always hope!

33

QS 04.23.13 at 2:11 am

All this reminds me of why I hate rationalist IR.

34

Anderson 04.23.13 at 2:12 am

“Nevertheless, clearly I intruded. Apologies.”

My goodness, I’m not banned from CT by sheer oversight. Don’t let me masquerade as the gatekeeper. I was mainly enchanted by my own pretentiousness in mapping realism/fantasy onto correspondence/coherence models of truth.

35

Terence 04.23.13 at 3:35 am

Urrgghh — I despair when people take wise and insightful social science, and sully it by comparison with fairy tales…

…Economists:hands off A Game of Thrones!

36

Terence 04.23.13 at 3:35 am

PS – sorry, I couldn’t resist.

37

Kaveh 04.23.13 at 5:13 am

@shah8 Trivial research of actual slave soldiers like Mamluks probably would have resulted in more interesting (if a bit more complex for the low reader) plot narrative/twist

Gad! I can only imagine how much better the books would have been if Martin had done some minimal research on mamluks and Mongols. So far, not one of the Astapori or Dothraki characters is has any individuality or depth. In that part of his setting, it feels like he’s constantly floundering. The Slave Cities and the Dothraki are the social/historical grumpkins and snarks of Martin’s world. On the other hand, the Westerosi characters and society have enough complexity (based on Martin’s obviously substantial reading of Medieval history–to the point that he can write inside jokes) that I don’t see how adding a little complexity/realism to Dothraki and Astapori would make the books more difficult than they already are.

As for the stupidity of the sale, Rich Puchalsky @28 makes a good point about the tired orientalism–but while I think it’s pertinent in this scene, I don’t think the slave cities are so clearly meant to read as ‘eastern’. They seem to be based much more on ancient Greece and Rome than on any Middle Eastern models. Not only the fact that the society/economy is so heavily dependent on chattel slavery, e.g. for agriculture, but the Republican system of government, and (in the TV series) the overall look and feel–the costumes, armor, weapons, sound of the language. Though no doubt a lot of American readers think of them all as generically Eastern (does Asia still begin at the Pyrenees?) and are probably very ready to believe that pre-modern Middle Eastern societies had all of the same vices, with none of the virtues.

But then again, if this does even a little bit to help Euro-American audiences see ancient Greek and Roman society as part of a cultural world centered much more on the Eastern Mediterranean, and not simply ‘western’, that is a big step in the right direction.

38

Tom L 04.23.13 at 5:57 am

With this intervention I think we can declare the Efficient Markets Hypothesis as razed as Winterfell.

39

Bruce Wilder 04.23.13 at 6:32 am

I despair when people take wise and insightful social science, and sully it by comparison with fairy tales…

Unsullied, economics a fairy tale . . . wait, I’m confused . . .

40

Bruce Wilder 04.23.13 at 6:45 am

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, quite a few background details in Martin’s books — and the world of far Essos is background to the foreground of Westeros — are exaggerated to a degree of incoherence, to give the whole story dream-like qualities. The unrealism that constructs those dream-like qualities is related to the rise of magic that drives everything from the edges inward.

Just consider, for example, the supposed scale of things: Westeros is Great Britain scaled up to the size of a continent — it is roughly the size of North America! — and yet, somehow, a feudal system scaled to medieval Britain and horses and sailing ships works.

Daenerys has magic; that’s why she can hatch dragons and it is why she can bargain successfully. She’s living in a dream, where the rules are not ruled by physics, but by the drama of dreams.

41

Terence 04.23.13 at 6:45 am

Although I have to confess, I’ve only read the first in the series.

And to be honest, I struggled with the whole unreliable narrator conceit.

Although I’ll concede Mankiw was a very regal sounding name.

42

Terence 04.23.13 at 6:48 am

By the way, John Lancaster has a great review of Game of Thrones in the LRB:
http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n07/john-lanchester/when-did-you-get-hooked

43

ajay 04.23.13 at 9:12 am

I know that I for one will only be satisfied with rigorous realism in my descriptions of the sale and purchase of giant fire-breathing flying lizards.

44

Katherine 04.23.13 at 10:10 am

Two points. Firstly, it is entirely plausible that the slave trader wouldn’t realise that Daenerys is going to put one over on him, because of one historically very accurate factor – his sexism. His subtitled and partially-translated words demonstrate what he is, and there is plenty of historical and contemporary evidence that men will continue to think that women are incapable and inferior despite all evidence to the contrary right in front of them.

Secondly, the Unsullied are entirely implausible. We’re in a world with marginal magic. There are the dragons and the White Walkers, which few people in Westeros take seriously any more. Magic is more on the surface in Essos it seems, what with warlocks and whatnot, but there has been no indication that magic is involved in producing the Unsullied. It seems that they are hyper-trained, brainwashed and abused. The idea that such methods would result in a perfectly in questioning, perfectly pain free, zombie-like body of perfect soldiers is, alas, unimaginative.

45

ajay 04.23.13 at 10:59 am

Just consider, for example, the supposed scale of things: Westeros is Great Britain scaled up to the size of a continent — it is roughly the size of North America! — and yet, somehow, a feudal system scaled to medieval Britain and horses and sailing ships works.

“Works”, though, only in the sense of “repeatedly collapses into catastrophic civil war”. It is, after all, undergoing one in the period in which the books are set. Fifteen or so years before that it had another one (Robert’s Rebellion) and the books mention a number of other smaller rebellions that happened within living memory. Before that, there was a period of (at most) a couple of centuries in which things were fairly peaceful because the ruling kings tended to incinerate anyone who rebelled by means of giant flying fire-breathing lizards – though, even then, there were various dynastic struggles and rebellions.
And before that it wasn’t a single continent-sized feudal state, it was lots of different countries – it’s still called the Seven Kingdoms.

A Westerosi reading the history of, say, the Roman Empire or Han-dynasty China might be a bit sceptical that an empire could survive for centuries without falling apart into civil war – without even the aid of dragons!

The improbable bit is not that the Seven Kingdoms hold together, because they don’t. The improbable bit is the persistence of dynasties – that House Stark can spend millennia ruling the North without being usurped. (Though there are scattered hints that much of the earlier history of the great houses is, frankly, as made up as the lineages of the Old Testament, and the Starks etc may not have been there nearly as long as they like to think.)

46

reason 04.23.13 at 12:24 pm

Jeffrey Davis @11
What proverb about owning a lion? Google came up blank for me.

47

Barry Freed 04.23.13 at 12:45 pm

Now that we know dragon’s eggs can be hatched and are not mere pretty baubles to be admired I won’t be satisfied until we see a futures market and other derivatives spring up. And what’s Astapor’s Standard & Poor rating?

And while we’re picking at nits (and lions and dragons), what’s with that ridiculous Dothraki sword, the arakh? Its size and shape preclude it from being wielded effectively from horseback and it has the look of a weapon derived from an agricultural implement such as a sickle and the Dothraki supposedly despise sedentary agriculturalists (and sedentary pastoralists for that matter). I’d expect something more like a yataghan or a sabre.

48

Jeffrey Davis 04.23.13 at 12:56 pm

If you own a lion, the lion owns you.

49

Barry 04.23.13 at 12:58 pm

What they’d use would be bows and lances, with swords as back-up, is my guess.

And I haven’t been following things closely, but is the idea with the Unsullied that the slavers can sell them to Daenerys, and they’d immediately become obedient to her until death? That’s a bit odd.

50

Anderson 04.23.13 at 2:52 pm

” the Unsullied are entirely implausible”

Katherine is correct to a point; they worked for me in terms of the story (i.e., I didn’t put the book down and go “what???”). And in the absence of any historical examples of eunuch slave armies to compare them to, I guess the empirical verdict remains open.

A comparison I didn’t see upthread is to the Janissaries, which I suspect was one of the elements percolating in Martin’s mind when he concocted the Unsullied.

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Shelley 04.23.13 at 3:01 pm

Second sentence lost me?

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ajay 04.23.13 at 3:25 pm

If you read Peter “the other one” Singer’s very good but upsetting book, “Children at War”, the Unsullied seem a bit less improbable; child soldiers, trained with a combination of drugs, brutality and indoctrination, can be frighteningly effective. Not just in the sense of being mindlessly aggressive and fearless, either. In terms of skills and tactics they can compare well to adult soldiers in the countries where they’re fighting. The Unsullied are, basically, adult child soldiers.

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mpowell 04.23.13 at 3:57 pm

ajay @ 43: That was might thought as well. Westeros is not a natural single kingdom but a few centuries of rule by dragon lord got people used to the idea. Pretty soon it will be seven kingdoms again. Unless a new dragon lord arrives. But the longevity of the major houses is totally impractical. Maybe we should stipulate that in Westeros, childhood mortality is much better than feudal Europe, infertility is much less common and child-bearing is less dangerous for women. Then, perhaps, with great lords having a minimum of 5 children, the likelihood of the survival of their name would be substantially improved (ignoring other factors). But even this doesn’t work as many of the families only have 2 or 3 children.

One of the things that irritated me reading the book is the idea that an unreliable minor lord like Frey would be allowed to retain a strategically valuable position. After Robert’s rebellion, Frey would be replaced by someone very loyal to Baratheon or Stark.

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William Timberman 04.23.13 at 4:03 pm

Jeffrey Davis @ 48

The same might be said of a Siamese cat, or a cocker spaniel — and we haven’t even begun to discuss our own natural offspring. You don’t have to be an aspirant King of Westeros to find yourself a hostage to fortune.

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BSEconomist 04.23.13 at 4:17 pm

I agree that there is in fact a hold-up problem here, but I still agree with Yglesias’ main points. The sale likely could have been made in equilibrium. Commenter ajay has the mechanism down: the dragons are small–more investments than weapons–and easily made hostages in any “renegotiation” (i.e. any attempt by Daenerys to use the unsullied against what’s-his-name). The only assumption you need to make this work is you have to believe (more specifically, what’s-his-name has to believe) that Daenerys would rather part with the dragon than let it die… which is reasonable.

You can argue that the existence of Daenerys’ plan is ipso facto reason to think that the hold-up problem should have doomed any sale, but I think the behavioral considerations have to come into play–what’s-his-name discounts Daenerys because of her gender. This is on top of the fact that he understands that he’s safe the moment he’s in possession of a dragon (as above). Even if he were to anticipate the danger from Daenerys’ instant control of the unsullied, he would likely think his (sufficient) control of the dragon would be immediate as well (he only needs to be able to kill the hostage).

In the long run, he must think that he is investing in an asset whose long term value rivals that of an entire kingdom, and he has no idea how rare handlers are. Its a risky asset to be sure, but from his perspective–for the low price of a few unsullied–the trade’s a bargain.

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Anderson 04.23.13 at 4:26 pm

“One of the things that irritated me reading the book is the idea that an unreliable minor lord like Frey would be allowed to retain a strategically valuable position.”

Politics. “Replacing” a lord tends to play poorly with other lords.

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Peter Hovde 04.23.13 at 5:55 pm

I’ve got it! Let’s assume we have a dragon.

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Barry 04.23.13 at 6:33 pm

A spherical dragon of multivariate normally distributed attributes.

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shah8 04.23.13 at 6:36 pm

The events in the books scale Westeros in terms of UK size. If Westeros is actual continent size, well then…things don’t happen this way. People might worship the Targayens for owning dragons, but a few dragons is only about as useful as a few horses in Mesoamerica circa early 16th century. Might work against Montezuma and the Tarascans, and the Incas, but if you’re trying a few dragons with a small army against the Southern Song (unmolested by Mongols of course) or the Tang, for that matter, your fucking dragon would be crispy critters and your head be chopped off. Those guys can round up gargantuan armies, lose a ton of battles learning all the while. If need be, guerilla war. A conquest of England, William of Orange style is pretty feasible. Alexander the Great, though, started off with about 30-35k military personnel. This is a lot more than some foreigner who had to move troops via boat with no city on the shore to be conquered. There ain’t no super-weapon that can counter that, other than maybe an army of Scanners. Dragons are just the human fascination with air power beyond their utility.

An aside, nobles that do what the river noble did, especially since the river noble is rather newly made, do get killed off. Nobles within actual great empires do get killed, regardless of the noises from other nobles–there are plenty of socially acceptable means of doing so. Nobles in a situation where the king is merely the biggest noble and the country is rather loosely bound can be hard to act against.

Thinking of the Unsullied as child soldiers illustrates the problem with the whole concept. How many battles do child soldiers win? How many cities won and sacked? How many horrific tragedies happened, from Iranian children running over minefields, or the European poor, held up to be childlike and innocent, struggled in the Children’s Crusade? Why would the author think this is compelling?

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Medrawt 04.23.13 at 7:19 pm

shah8 – GRRM says Westeros is about the size of South America. As to the efficacy of dragons, as long as he’s consistent he gets to decide how powerful they are in his fictional world. In particular – and I’m not certain if anything’s been laid down in the books about this – he gets to decide how vulnerable they are to physical attack. Tolkien’s dragons could be slain via their exposed underbelly, but not everyone else’s dragons follow suit. The climactic battle of conquest saw two kings marshal an army of about 50K against a much smaller force which was itself largely composed of the armies of recently conquered kings.

(Worth nothing that to get to this point, the Targaryens didn’t do a lot of open battle; they exploited existing tensions, made alliances with rival houses, and then did things like “roast the royal family inside his castle” and “land a dragon atop the supposedly impenetrable keep”. Clever politics and shock and awe, basically.)

And when the battle was going badly, the Targaryens took all three dragons into the air and roasted thousands of men to death in minutes, including one of the kings and all his sons (this is how the Tyrells got to be in charge of the Reach). Surrender ensued. If GRRM says a dragon can take to the air and kill a thousand men a minute, then that’s what they can do. Worth pointing out that then they failed to conquer Dorne, because the Dornish refused to give open battle.

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Anderson 04.23.13 at 7:49 pm

“Tolkien’s dragons could be slain via their exposed underbelly”

Which they took measures to protect. Tolkien may be the only author to explain *why* a dragon wants a huge pile of coins and gems to lie upon.

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The Witch from Next Door 04.23.13 at 9:56 pm

Anderson @ 50: “A comparison I didn’t see upthread is to the Janissaries, which I suspect was one of the elements percolating in Martin’s mind when he concocted the Unsullied.”

I thought that Janissaries must have been in GRRM’s mind when he created the Night’s Watch as well – soldiers from a motley collection of sources who are forbidden from marrying or reproducing, hence cannot engage in dynasty-building. They’re not slaves, of course, though the finality of their oath makes them something other than free men.

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Soru 04.24.13 at 6:28 am

@59 I’m sure there is a thesis to be written somewhere about how in English language map fantasy written by UK authors, if the map has a country that stands in for the UK, it won’t have one for the us. Pratchett is most obvious – the Discworld has a wales and an Italy and an australia, but no America. But also Tolkien, Moorcock, Richard Morgan, Warhammer, and probably more.

Whereas in map fantasy by us authors, there will commonly be a land with something of the politics, history and location of England, but the dimensions, linguistics and commonly social attitudes of the US, with which a us reader is expected to identify.

Probably something to do with why you don’t see a lot of Westerns being written any more….

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Bruce Wilder 04.24.13 at 7:04 am

England, before the coming of Danes and the Normans forced unification, was seven kingdoms, sometimes referred to as the Heptarchy: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Wessex.

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ajay 04.24.13 at 8:41 am

I’m sure there is a thesis to be written somewhere about how in English language map fantasy written by UK authors, if the map has a country that stands in for the UK, it won’t have one for the us. Pratchett is most obvious – the Discworld has a wales and an Italy and an australia, but no America.

Tolkien has a stand-in for the US – Valinor, the mysterious land in the Far West, which everyone interesting keeps emigrating to. I vaguely remember (it’s been about 20 years) that the Warhammer world has a New World continent over the not-Atlantic from the Old World.
And the Discworld doesn’t have a UK stand-in. It has stand-ins for lots of different bits of the UK – like Llamedos (which is Wales) and the Ramtops (which are, depending on preference, the Highlands, the Peak District, Yorkshire or possibly also Wales) – but it also has stand-ins for bits of the US, like Genua (which is fairly definitely New Orleans).

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ajay 04.24.13 at 8:42 am

Thinking of the Unsullied as child soldiers illustrates the problem with the whole concept. How many battles do child soldiers win?

Quite a few, actually. As I say, read Singer’s book.

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ajay 04.24.13 at 8:51 am

Tolkien may be the only author to explain *why* a dragon wants a huge pile of coins and gems to lie upon.

The obvious answer is that dragons have really powerful stomach acids and so the only thing that survives the digestive process is the victim’s personal jewellery and pocket change. It’s not that they’re greedy, they’re just unsanitary.

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Tim Wilkinson 04.24.13 at 9:12 am

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Alex 04.24.13 at 9:34 am

Shah8 is right about dragons being a satire of air power in general. Absolutely, terrifyingly devastating and uniquely capable of attacking in depth to hundreds of miles, but it’s never available when you need it, it’s somehow unpredictable in its effects and general behaviour, it regularly kills the user, the dragon-farmers are completely untrustworthy and their promises are worthless, and it needs constantly feeding with treasure or it won’t fly. And if you think the dragons are problematic, you haven’t met the dragon-handlers.

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Alex 04.24.13 at 9:37 am

That said, dragon politics sounds more like nuclear proliferation. North Korea desperately hanging on to get its first dragon and therefore guarantee regime survival.

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ajay 04.24.13 at 10:19 am

69: the trouble is that, in Game of Thrones, dragons actually can achieve everything that people think they can.
It would be rather fun to read a story in which everyone is convinced that dragons and dragon-riders are awesome war-winning weapons, but they are in fact not much use.
“The dragon will always get through!” roared Bomberharys Targaryen.

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Pub Editor 04.24.13 at 3:09 pm

The Witch from Next Door @ 62:

It is possible that GRRM had the Janissaries as one source of inspiration when he created the Night’s Watch, but the more straightforward inspirations for the Night’s Watch would probably be the orders of Crusading knights, like the Hospitalliers, the Templars, and the Teutonic Knights, who were drawn from all over western and central Europe, were concentrated in a few fortresses in strategic locations, took vows of celibacy and poverty, and not infrequently attracted recruits from among the younger sons of the knightly and ruling classes (corresponding, in the GRRM books, to characters like Benjen Stark, Denys Mallister, and Waymar Royce).

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chris 04.24.13 at 3:14 pm

Tolkien has a stand-in for the US – Valinor, the mysterious land in the Far West, which everyone interesting keeps emigrating to.

That’s not the US, it’s Tir nan Og.

As to the efficacy of dragons, as long as he’s consistent he gets to decide how powerful they are in his fictional world. In particular – and I’m not certain if anything’s been laid down in the books about this – he gets to decide how vulnerable they are to physical attack.

OK, but they can still only be in one place at a time (each) and probably they need to eat and can get tired. (And will probably be more vulnerable when asleep, after all, everything else is.)

Furthermore, if they’re intelligent enough to understand and carry out plans themselves then you have to secure their loyalty somehow, and if they require a human to direct them, that human can be killed or subverted.

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James 04.24.13 at 3:29 pm

The Unsullied are not child soldiers. They are soldiers trained since childhood. They are adults with 10+ years of brutal military training and represent that regions version of elite troops. Best estimate would be 2 unsullied equal to 1 Westros knight. So any request for children undergoing training represents an investment in a possible future soldier.

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Medrawt 04.24.13 at 5:02 pm

That’s not the US, it’s Tir nan Og.

Basically. I find it interesting that while Tolkien was not in general reluctant to acknowledge his debts to folklore, and specifically credited the beauty of the Welsh language to his ear as an inspiration on the development of Sindarin, he rather hostilely rejected the suggestion of an influence of Celtic myth on his storytelling. Valinor does seem more like Tir na nOg than anything else though, particularly as he’s rather clear (IIRC – I’m actually partway through The History of Middle Earth right now, so my mind is on the early conceptions of these things) that it’s NOT the final resting place for Men, who presumably go on to Catholic heaven.

re: ASOIAF dragons … maybe they never sleep. Maybe the sleep atop unreachable mountain crags, when left to their own devices. Or when they rest they were guarded by fifty men. I’m only a little of the way into the fourth book, and I haven’t read any of his prequelish novellas set 100 years before the series, but the actions of dragons in conquering Westeros, a few hundred years after they dominated Essos, are recently recorded history. Only those of Valyrian blood have ever shown the ability to control them – which is one of the many reasons the Astapori slavers were dumb – and it’s made clear that this link has some magical property. I mean, for humor’s sake I get the complaints in this thread, but there’s lots of problems and apparent holes in GRRM’s fictional construct here, and the specific feats attributed to dragons don’t seem to be among them.

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Barry Freed 04.24.13 at 5:15 pm

The value of the Unsullied lies in their discipline and their training to fight in tight formations like a phalanx whereas the knights of Westeros belong to an age of single combat. A single knight might be worth several Unsullied or even many one on one but a large enough formation of Unsullied should be able to stand against several times their number in knights.

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James 04.24.13 at 7:12 pm

While I agree with your base premise, I am not certain that a phalanx has the ability to stand against a heavy Calvary charge. The novels seems to model knights based on the French/Byzantine Cavalry and the Unsullied based on the Greek/Roman phalanx.

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Kaveh 04.25.13 at 3:24 pm

@69, 70, etc. How sure are we that dragons really can do all these things? We don’t know yet if the magic dragon-controlling horn really works, dragons seem to be not very intelligent, and about as loyal and manageable as cats. The stories about Targaeryans and their dragons might be very exaggerated.

@77 I think a phalanx could stand up to a cavalry charge if they act like of Medieval pikemen (and have long enough spears). But Dany may be lucky (spoiler alert) that she wound up with some Dothraki again before the big battle to defend Astapor that appears to be about to happen around the beginning of book 6. I’m curious how (or even IF) Martin will depict Dothraki in a large-scale battle, given that their historical models’ effectiveness was based on superior range, speed, and tactical training, whereas Martin has so far characterized them as ultra-primitive & bloodthirsty, which at least in the fantasy idiom doesn’t fit well with a style warfare that emphasizes precise tactics and reliance on superior range and mobility).

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witless chum 04.25.13 at 4:32 pm

Exactly.

Medieval spearmen were able to stand against heavy calvary charges. The Scots did it to the English several times (they lost when the English responded with massed archery) and the Flemish did it to the French. Supposedly, it’s really hard to get even trained horses to charge into a tightly-packed group of men holding spears who don’t run away. It’s the not running away that’s the hard part.

It also relates to dragons in A Song of Ice and Fire. Aegon the Conqueror unleashed his three dragons together in one battle and they killed a lot of men, but it seems like they mostly worked by terrorizing the armies into running, just like masses of mounted knights were mostly able to send footsoldiers running. Later, the Targaryens fought at least one civil war that involved dragons versus dragons. In the far past, it’s suggested that the Valyrian Freehold (Rome plus dragons) was able to beat all comers, but it took them a long time for them to beat other empires that didn’t have dragons, like the Rhoynar (who fled to Westeros and settled in Dorne) and the Ghiscari (forrunners of the Slavers Bay cities). They didn’t sweep them away just because they had dragons.

I always think of Danerys vs. the Slaver Cities as analogous to Cortez versus the Aztecs. He came in with some radical outside assumptions that the Triple Alliance just didn’t share (Mesoamerican war and conquest was highly ritualized). Cortez, coming from outside, was able to see the angles and cracks and exploit them. That allowed him to win, as much as having a small force with better military technology did.

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ajay 04.26.13 at 10:06 am

Supposedly, it’s really hard to get even trained horses to charge into a tightly-packed group of men holding spears who don’t run away.

Impossible, actually. Horses aren’t bright but they’re not that stupid. John Keegan goes into some detail about this in “The Face of Battle” – cavalry charges against squares always ended up flowing round the sides of the square rather than crashing into the face of it. There was IIRC one exception where a horse was shot and its momentum carried it into the troops, knocking some of them down and breaking a hole for the rest of the horse soldiers to exploit. But other than that you can’t break a square (or a schiltrom) with cavalry. You use infantry charges, or missile weapons or (in the black powder age) artillery.

Valinor does seem more like Tir na nOg than anything else though,

IIRC the Greeks also had the Isles of the Blessed in the far western ocean. (Geographically, I have just found, these are the islands of Macaronesia. No, I am not making that up.)

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Tim Wilkinson 04.27.13 at 10:59 pm

Alex 69 – Autonomous killer robots seem closer to raising the problem mentioned in the OP – of course many of these will be airborne ‘drones’ (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles), so most problems associated with air power apply too.

They are topical at present too, with the campaign for an international ban in the news, and protests currently under way against RAF personnel operating drones (‘mostly’, we are reassured, for reconnaissance) from the UK.

The Lockheed Martin/USAF ‘Low Cost Autonomous Attack System’ is openly in the final stages of development, using AI to identify and strike targets. This isn’t really different in kind from pattern-matching technology used in the self-guidance systems in Tomahawk missiles (which are actually unmanned bombers, since they can attack multiple targets with their 20 ‘bomblets’).

Combine this kind of technology with the policy of ‘signature targeting’ (star jumps = terrorists) of drone strikes, gait recognition and similar biometric techniques used in surveillance of domestic populations and we have all the ingredients for automating the important work of vaporising wedding parties etc.

That’s the public-domain situation, and the media and campaigners all state that autonomous killer robots (let’s say those which, without human input, select and attack human targets based on generic characteristics) do not yet exist. This negative existential statement seems unwarranted to me, when one considers that new weapons are commonly developed and implemented in secrecy, especially by the CIA (e.g. reportedly, bioweapons programmes whose nature is secret) which is the main driver of the drone programme, has a long and inglorious history – even going only on such records as have been preserved and released to the publoic – of developing lethal technologies unconstrained by any discernible ethical contraints, is known to habitually evade oversight, and has a ‘black budget’ which has been estimated at about a $trillion p.a.

In view of all this, I don’t think one should suppose that the US (and Chinese, Russian) military and paramilitary capability really extends only as far as the state-of-the-art-according-to-Popular-Mechanics.

So the chances are that fully-fledged mechanical dragons already exist, with the 3rd law of robotics taking the place of ‘loyalty’ in the OP (needless to say the 1st and 2nd laws, and the provisos their priority places on the 3rd, are not even in the running, which is nice).

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Matt 04.27.13 at 11:43 pm

So the chances are that fully-fledged mechanical dragons already exist, with the 3rd law of robotics taking the place of ‘loyalty’ in the OP (needless to say the 1st and 2nd laws, and the provisos their priority places on the 3rd, are not even in the running, which is nice).

In the Peter Watts short story Malak, (spoilers follow …)

.
.
.
.

the war drones are far more autonomous, but humans can issue orders to override the drones. A war drone gets a software upgrade to identify and avoid harming children and neutral parties while fighting hostiles. Human controllers keep ordering it to ignore those ethical constraints when it would prevent firing weapons. Eventually the drone concludes that the controllers constantly fighting its judgment must be hostile and turns on the control center.

It’s a well done story, not the sort of Rod Serling ironic-justice sermon that my summary sounds like.

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ajay 04.29.13 at 1:56 pm

the media and campaigners all state that autonomous killer robots (let’s say those which, without human input, select and attack human targets based on generic characteristics) do not yet exist.

Depends on your definition of “robot”, though. Sophisticated autonomous weapons that kill without a human in the loop, and make no distinction between soldier and civilian, have been used in Afghanistan and elsewhere for a long time. They’re called “mines”.

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Tim Wilkinson 04.29.13 at 7:17 pm

Yes, good point – the generic characteristic being ‘stepping in a certain place’. And their use is especially objectionable and widely protested against on those very grounds.

Not that it necessarily matters very much, but I guess that immobility might for these purposes be treated as a disqualification for ‘robot’ status – though exploding or ejecting bombs is a form of motion, I suppose, if not mobility which is also not a feature of assembly-line robots,e.g.

Perhaps for the purpose of making a distinction, we specify that autonomous killer robots actually roam around looking for targets, but aside from the specific purposes of the OP’s point about weapons turning (locally-unpredictably) on its owners (despite their taking all feasible precautions), that distinction may not be a particularly fundamental one.

Pragmatically, it might be important: an attenpt to ban killer robots might be considered a non-starter if allowed to comprehend landmines. For legal purposes it would be in any case be necessary to formulate fairly rigorous criteria.

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Anderson 04.29.13 at 7:26 pm

“Tolkien has a stand-in for the US – Valinor, the mysterious land in the Far West, which everyone interesting keeps emigrating to.”

Nah. If Valinor were the U.S., the Valar would intervene every other year.

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