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Killer robots: should we be afraid?

Can we justify the rise in military robots?

Richard Robert, Journalist and Author
On November 9th, 2021 |
4 mins reading time
Can we justify the rise in military robots?
Alan Wagner
Alan Wagner
Assistant professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and research associate in the Rock Ethics Institute
Key takeaways
  • In theory, robotic soldiers don’t get emotional, or revengeful, or angry. But the possibility of an accident raises issues of responsibility and liability, which are of great importance in military matters.
  • Increased autonomy thanks to AI, as well as maximised lethality, raises a philosophical problem: is the prospect of human soldiers facing bloodless, incredibly efficient machines acceptable?
  • But future autonomous systems might be perfect at targeting, so such a “precise” war would be less bloody.
  • Advances in precision warfare might also drive a new kind of dissuasion.

Tech­nolo­gies for mil­i­tary robots have made sig­nif­i­cant progress over the last two decades, rais­ing issues about using autonomous robot­ic sol­diers for active engage­ment in bat­tles. What are the eth­i­cal concerns?

Alan Wag­n­er. There are pros and cons. First­ly, since robot­ic sol­diers don’t get emo­tion­al, revenge­ful, or angry they would – in the­o­ry – fol­low the rules of war very close­ly. This could pre­vent some of the worst atroc­i­ties that have occurred in wartime. In that sense, robots could poten­tial­ly be more eth­i­cal than human sol­diers. How­ev­er, the coun­ter­ar­gu­ment is that, cur­rent­ly, robot­ic sys­tems are gen­er­al­ly not capa­ble of dis­tin­guish­ing between civil­ians and sol­diers. As a result, there is a risk that robots would acci­den­tal­ly tar­get civil­ians. That being said, these two argu­ments are not mutu­al­ly exclusive.

The pos­si­bil­i­ty of an acci­dent rais­es ques­tions around respon­si­bil­i­ty and lia­bil­i­ty; this is the core of the eth­i­cal debate in its cur­rent ver­sion. One of our val­ues when it comes to mil­i­tary deci­sion-mak­ing is that a human is respon­si­ble for a decision.

But respon­si­bil­i­ty is an extreme­ly dif­fi­cult notion when it comes to mil­i­tary robots. If a com­man­der autho­ris­es an autonomous sys­tem, is the com­man­der still respon­si­ble for its course of action? If the sys­tem makes mis­takes, how long does the author­i­ty per­sist? Over a fixed peri­od? Or only regard­ing cer­tain actions? These ques­tions need to be con­sid­ered more strong­ly, but also cod­i­fied, to decide what the lim­i­ta­tions of these sys­tems are and to deter­mine their bound­aries with regard to ethics.

Defin­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty and author­i­ty is a legal point, one that could be dealt with based on a set of rules. But there is also a philo­soph­i­cal prob­lem: is the prospect of flesh and bone sol­diers fac­ing blood­less machines acceptable?

It comes back to our val­ues and belief sys­tems. The ques­tion is not just about how unfair it would be for a sol­dier to face some Ter­mi­na­tor-like unstop­pable machine killer. And if the val­ue of both your mil­i­tary and soci­ety is such that only a human can decide to take anoth­er human’s life in a mil­i­tary con­text, then that would pre­clude the use of autonomous sys­tems for most bat­tles or oth­er mil­i­tary operations.

But debat­ing in such absolute terms is sim­pli­fy­ing the eth­i­cal ques­tion. You might have a val­ue sys­tem which favors max­imis­ing the safe­ty of your sol­diers. In that case, you may require autonomous robots in your mil­i­tary. Val­ues are often in con­flict with one anoth­er and there might be a trade off. The prin­ci­pal val­ue for most coun­tries is to not lose a war, because con­se­quences are high, not just on the bat­tle­field but for soci­ety on the whole. This leads to a dif­fi­cult chal­lenge: if one coun­try is going to devel­op autonomous sys­tems that have no eth­i­cal val­ues, but give them a strate­gic advan­tage, are you required to do so as well in order to not let them have that advantage?

Con­verse­ly, there is also the ques­tion of legit­i­ma­cy. If you win a bat­tle thanks to robots, will your adver­sary accept your vic­to­ry? Will you be able to real­ly make peace and put an end to the war? This is a key ques­tion, though it goes unno­ticed in eth­i­cal debates over mil­i­tary robots. And unfor­tu­nate­ly, we’re walk­ing right into it. Con­sid­er the Unit­ed States use of drone war­fare in Iraq. Evi­dence shows that when sol­diers weren’t at risk, the num­ber of drone attacks by the Unit­ed States went up; sug­gest­ing that when peo­ple are not at risk it could be eas­i­er to fos­ter wars, with more bat­tles. On the oth­er hand, in the recent Armen­ian-Azer­bai­jani war, the use of drones may have end­ed the war end more quickly.

In the past, mech­a­ni­sa­tion of war­fare has made it more cost­ly and blood­i­er, before a rever­sal. Could it be the case with robots?

It’s not clear whether robots will make war­fare blood­i­er. They could make it less bloody if the autonomous sys­tems are well devel­oped. Many years from now, autonomous sys­tems could become per­fect at tar­get­ing, com­plete­ly avoid­ing civil­ian casu­al­ties. Thou­sands of lives would be saved. There­fore, one has to be care­ful about the very notion of “killer robot.”

We might not like pre­ci­sion guid­ed mis­siles, but they are a replace­ment for car­pet bomb­ing. The same hap­pened in civil­ian indus­tries such as agri­cul­ture, where after one cen­tu­ry of mass using of fer­tilis­ers, we are switch­ing to a pre­ci­sion mod­el. “Sur­gi­cal strikes,” an expres­sion used in the 1990s, was chal­lenged as just anoth­er pub­lic rela­tions mot­to. But the under­ly­ing trend, which is quite con­sis­tent with our val­ue sys­tems, is that we kept devel­op­ing tech­nolo­gies that would min­imise civil­ian casu­al­ties. The 90s were the begin­ning of pre­ci­sion war­fare, with most­ly pre­ci­sion guid­ed mis­siles. Things have advanced: we have pre­ci­sion recon­nais­sance and capac­i­ties for pre­ci­sion assas­si­na­tion, with long dis­tance guns able to kill just one per­son in a car.

It is a dif­fi­cult trade off to know whether we should have these tech­nolo­gies ver­sus do we have the wars that might result with­out them. The slip­pery slope argu­ment says it might become a bat­tle of who con­trols these tech­nolo­gies and the engi­neers able to devel­op them. But anoth­er argu­ment is that if heads of State and oth­er key deci­sion mak­ers can be tar­get­ed, pre­ci­sion war­fare can per­tain to the same dis­sua­sion log­ic as nuclear bombs, invit­ing all sides to show restraint.

Does the prospect of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence alter these considerations?

The way arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence and robot­ics relate is that the robot is the machine, includ­ing the sen­sors, the actu­a­tors, and the phys­i­cal sys­tem. The arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence (AI) is the brain that makes the machine do things. They are high­ly con­nect­ed: the smarter the sys­tem, the more capa­ble it is. But AI is a vast field, encom­pass­ing every­thing from com­put­er vision and per­cep­tion to intel­li­gent deci­sion-mak­ing to intel­li­gent move­ment. All these things could go into robot­ic sys­tems and be used to make them more capa­ble and less prone to flaws and errors. Here AI is enabling pre­ci­sion, which rein­forces the argu­ments above.

Can AI replace peo­ple in this con­text? Again, the answer is not sim­ple. AI may replace the per­son for some deci­sions, non-lethal ones, or all deci­sions, or just some of the time, but not all of the time. We are back to the legal bound­aries and lia­bil­i­ty issues.

What it real­ly changes is the strate­gic para­me­ters of the deci­sion. We are talk­ing of kinet­ic war­fare here. When using, for exam­ple, drones to lead a charge, you risk much less than when you charge with sol­diers. Drones are just man­u­fac­tured items, easy to replace. You may nev­er lose the momen­tum if you can get it, which is a game chang­er strate­gi­cal­ly. You could imag­ine a bat­tle where you drop a bunch of robots in to con­trol a bridge and they do it for years. They don’t fade or sleep. They just sit there, and nobody cross­es the bridge unauthorised.