The topic of killer robots was drawn back into the public sphere last week with the widely publicised call for a moratorium on the development and use of “lethal autonomous robotics” by a top UN human rights expert; and inevitably, this conjured up some familiar concerns.
The opening scenes of James Cameron’s 1984 film The Terminator portray people running for cover beneath ruined buildings while hunter-killer robots circle menacingly overhead. Of course, such images must already have a certain contemporary resonance in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where people live in fear of being killed by aHellfire missile fired by a Predator or Reaper drone, controlled by operators in the United States.
Yet if people are dying in drone strikes today at least a human being has confronted the question of whether the goals the attack is intended to serve are worth killing them for.
Now that military scientists around the world are working on developing autonomous weapons intended to be capable of identifying and attacking targets without direct human oversight – referred to interchangeably as lethal autonomous robots and killer robots – the scenario Cameron portrays in the first few minutes of his film is perhaps closer than we think.
It’s important to stress here that, currently, such weapons are not employed, although various technologies of this sort are in development. And, while not “autonomous”, the sophistication of certain robotics being trialled for the battlefield, as discussed already on The Conversation, gives some insight into where things may be going.
Last week’s discussion on the ethics of lethal autonomous robots at the UN Human Rights Council followed in the footsteps of a November 2012 Human Rights Watchreport, Losing Humanity: the Case Against Killer Robots.
But the military logic driving the rapidly expanding use of drones and the development of autonomous weapons has been obvious for some time. It was because we viewed this prospect with alarm that colleagues and I founded the International Committee for Robot Arms Control at a meeting in the UK in September 2009.
Risks and rewards
The development of autonomous weapons would undermine international peace and security by lowering the domestic political costs of going to war and by greatly increasing the risk of conflicts being triggered by accident.
The fear of the public seeing their sons and daughters return in body bags is the main thing that currently prevents governments from going to war. If governments think they can impose their will on affairs in foreign lands using autonomous weapons there will be little to stop them bombing and assassinating those they perceive as their enemies more often than they already do.
The UN’s Christof Heyns has called for a global pause in the development and deployment of “killer robots”
Of course, as the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate all too well, wars are easier to start than to finish. Similarly, despite the enthusiasm of the West for fighting wars entirely in other people’s countries, the violence of these conflicts has ways of finding its way home.
The stabbing of a British soldier in Woolwich by two men identifying as Muslims has been widely described as an act of terrorism: as Glenn Greenwald has argued, given that it involved an attack on a member of the British armed services in the context of the UK’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan, one wonders if it might not equally well be thought of as a poor man’s drone strike. Misplaced faith in the possibility of risk-free warfare may end up putting more lives at risk.
When autonomous submarines are circling each other in the Pacific 24 hours a day and autonomous planes are poised to strike strategic targets should some particular set of conditions on a checklist maintained by a computer be met, the risk of accidental war will be all too real.
This tradition places severe restrictions on the conduct of war, including regarding who is and is not a legitimate target of attack. Civilians are not legitimate targets, nor are soldiers who have indicated a desire to surrender or who are wounded such that they pose no military threat.
Despite the rapid progress of computer science, I am extremely cynical that machines will be able to make the complex contextual judgements required to reliably meet the requirements of just war theory for the foreseeable future.
There is also a peculiar horror associated with the idea of people being killed by robots, which I have been working to elucidate in my research. Even though they are willing to kill each other, enemies at war are in a moral relationship.
At a bare minimum, they must acknowledge their enemy as their enemy and be willing to take responsibility for the decision to kill them. Robots are unable to offer this recognition themselves and arguably obscure the moral relationship between combatants to such an extent as to call into question the ethics of their use as weapons.
For all these reasons, I applaud the recent launch of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots announced by a coalition of NGOs in London in April this year and support its goal of a global ban on the development and deployment of lethal autonomous weapons.
Monash panel discusses Antigone at the Malthouse Theatre
As part of Monash’s becoming a major sponsor of The Malthouse Theatre this year, Monash … Continue reading Monash panel discusses Antigone at the Malthouse Theatre
MWF brings launch of On Happiness to Melbourne
Happiness appears to be a simple emotion, individual and pleasurable, yet the problems associated with … Continue reading MWF brings launch of On Happiness to Melbourne
World first at Monash: Chair in Cultural Linguistics appointed to Farzad Sharifian
Professor Farzad Sharifian has recently been appointed as the Chair in Cultural Linguistics at Monash, … Continue reading World first at Monash: Chair in Cultural Linguistics appointed to Farzad Sharifian
Did you miss Open Day 2015?
You can still have your questions answered. Check out our FAQs and also search our … Continue reading Did you miss Open Day 2015?
Monash Arts students and alumni to perform at WinterFest
A band of Monash University students and alumni will return from an interstate tour to … Continue reading Monash Arts students and alumni to perform at WinterFest
‘Monash Country Lines’ Yanyuwa animations to be broadcast on NITV
Those interested in seeing the work of the Monash Country Lines project will soon have the … Continue reading ‘Monash Country Lines’ Yanyuwa animations to be broadcast on NITV
ACFID University Network Conference tackles development’s tough questions
As the UNDP noted at the end of 2013, ‘The world is more unequal today … Continue reading ACFID University Network Conference tackles development’s tough questions
Monash Arts celebrates student achievements at Awards events
Monash Arts recently held awards events recognising the achievements of the Faculty’s undergraduate and graduate … Continue reading Monash Arts celebrates student achievements at Awards events
Monash student elected to head new global youth network
Monash Arts student Siamak Sam Loni has been named Global Coordinator of the Sustainable Development … Continue reading Monash student elected to head new global youth network
Monash students bring The Handmaid’s Tale to life
A theatrical production of Margaret Atwood’s award winning novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, will premiere in … Continue reading Monash students bring The Handmaid’s Tale to life
Journalism Alumnae Finalists in the Young Walkleys
Monash University journalism alumnae Alana Mitchelson and Naomi Selvaratnam have been named finalists in the Young Walkley Awards to … Continue reading Journalism Alumnae Finalists in the Young Walkleys
Global Discovery in New York
Eight talented Monash students, including two students from Arts’ Master of International Development Practice, have … Continue reading Global Discovery in New York