Robot warriors pose ethical dilemna

May 27, 2014

With the increasing use of drones in military operations, it is perhaps only a matter of time before robots replace soldiers. Whether fully automated war is on the immediate horizon, one researcher says it's not too early to start examining the ethical issues that robot armies raise.

In her recent thesis on the ethics of automation in war, Linda Johansson, a researcher in ethics at Sweden's KTH Royal Institute of Technology, suggests that it is necessary to reconsider the international laws of war, and to begin examining whether advanced robots should be held accountable for their actions.

The use of – or (UAV) – is increasing, and more money is being poured into developing them, clearly changing the context of conflict and raising new questions.

"It's not too early to start discussing these kinds of issues … given the speed of development," Johansson says.

According to a UN survey, civilians have been killed in 33 separate drone attacks around the world. In Pakistan, an estimated 2,200 to 3,300 people have been killed by drone attacks since 2004, 400 of whom were civilians. According to the latest figures from the Pakistani Ministry of Defense, 67 civilians have been killed in drone attacks in the country since 2008.

"Soldiers may kill other soldiers in a war - would it be permissible for someone on the other side of the earth to attack the operators who control the drones?" Johansson asks.

She also questions the ethics of assigning drone operators the task of tracking a targeted person from a safe distance for days, perhaps even a week, before striking. "This is different from ordinary combat soldiers who face their opponents directly," she says. "The post-traumatic stress syndrome that affects an operator may be just as severe as for a regular soldier."

Currently drones are still operated remotely by a human being, but technological advancement is so rapid that full automation is more than just a grim science fiction fantasy.

Johansson sketches out a scenario to show how reaching that point presents other ethical questions:

"Soon we may be facing a situation where an operator controls two drones instead of one, on account of cost reasons," Johansson says. "Add to that the human tendency to rely on technology. Now imagine a situation where very quick decisions must be made. It becomes easy to step out of the decision loop and hand over control to the robot or computer.

"Man becomes the weakest link."

It could also be argued that robots are not entitled to defend themselves, since under the rules of war they are not in danger of losing their lives. "Does it mean that they have lost the right to kill human soldiers?" she asks.

Robots, especially drones, can also facilitate the conduct of "secret war", with low transparency and minimal involvement of troops.

Linda Johansson's research has resulted in a compilation of seven articles. In addition to autonomous systems in the , she studied other aspects of robots. One of the articles is about care-giver robots and the ethics around them. Two of her articles focus on the so-called "agent landscape" – or if and when advanced robots can be held responsible for their actions.

Explore further: Killer robot drones are like drugs: Regulate, but resist the urge to ban them

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TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) May 27, 2014
"Linda Johansson
PhD student in philosophy"

-from the internet. So let's rewrite the title if this article.

"Robot warriors pose ethical dilemna, in the opinion of a doctoral candidate in philosophy"

-who

"suggests that it is necessary to reconsider the international laws of war, and to begin examining whether advanced robots should be held accountable for their actions."

-because

"civilians have been killed in 33 separate drone attacks around the world. In Pakistan, an estimated 2,200 to 3,300 people have been killed by drone attacks since 2004, 400 of whom were civilians."

-which fails to emphasize that ratios have declined so that

"less than 2% (1 out of 50) in 2012."

-which tells us that drone use is reducing civilian deaths. She asks

"would it be permissible for someone on the other side of the earth to attack the operators"

-so I guess she missed 9/11 altogether?
Cont >
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) May 27, 2014
The philo continues

"tracking a targeted person from a safe distance... before striking. This is different from ordinary combat soldiers who face their opponents directly"

-thereby revealing a profound and shameful ignorance about how wars are fought. The purpose of war is to defeat the enemy by out-thinking rather than out-muscling him. Facing him Mano e Mano is the last resort.

This has been true ever since the spear was invented. Since then we have developed slings, arrows, firearms, artillery, and carpet bombing in order to separate combatants and allow the destruction of the enemy while minimizing the threat to friendly forces.

"robots are not entitled to defend themselves, since under the rules of war they are not in danger of losing their lives"

-Well dear doctor (almost), a fortress does not lay down its walls when the enemy approaches does it? The loss of valuable hardware is always regrettable. Missiles and satellites already incorporate active countermeasures.
antialias_physorg
3.7 / 5 (3) May 27, 2014
Ethics is the first thing that goes out the window in war (killing people is the point no matter what kind of euphemisms you slap onto it. There's little you can do to make that ethical)

would it be permissible for someone on the other side of the earth to attack the operators who control the drones

Assassinating key personell has always been a strategy in war. Bei it an opposing dictator/president/scientists or other valuable asset like an IT expert or drone operator. If you're part of an armed force in a war you're fair game (with the possible exception of medics).

It becomes easy to step out of the decision loop and hand over control to the robot or computer.

That's already been a reality since the invention of explosives: Mines
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) May 27, 2014
Ethics is the first thing that goes out the window in war (killing people is the point no matter what kind of euphemisms you slap onto it. There's little you can do to make that ethical)
It is unethical to let people kill you or your family or to try to destroy your way of life. It is often necessary to kill people in order to prevent this. In this case killing is highly ethical.

Anyone who fails to agree with this is just a coward.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) May 27, 2014
"robots are not entitled to defend themselves, since under the rules of war they are not in danger of losing their lives"

-You know, this is even more ignorant than I first realized. Soldiers are not out there risking their lives to defend themselves. Their job is to defend the people they are fighting for. They fight the enemy so that the people they are protecting dont have to.

Robots are an even better way of doing this. And the longer a robot can remain effective on the battlefield, the more useful in this endeavor it can be.