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

February 14, 2014 by Tom Simpson, The Conversation
Taranis in flight. Credit: BAE Systems

BAE Systems has revealed that it has successfully test-flown Taranis, its prototype Unmanned Aerial Vehicle.

The test has some people understandably hot under the collar. But while there is much to debate on the detail, the answer to the biggest question of all, whether or not we should ban drones, is unequivocal. We should not. Like effective but dangerous drugs, the answer is not to ban them. It's to subject their development to rigorous testing and regulation.

BAE's video footage shows a sleek boomerang-shaped blade cruising sedately over the Australian outback. Taranis is a stealth aircraft, designed to evade radar. It is pilotless, meaning it can manoeuvre in ways that would cause a human to black out if they were on board. And crucially, it's a step on the way to drones that can make autonomous targeting decisions. More bluntly, it's a step towards taking to the sky.

It's not difficult to see why the idea of killer robots causes alarm. Some worry that these machines won't be able to distinguish reliably between soldiers and civilians and will end up killing innocents. Others imagine Terminator-style wars between robots and people.

Philosophers get in on the act too, arguing that enabling machines to decide who to kill is a fundamental breach of the conditions of just war. For it is unclear who should be held responsible when things go wrong and a drone kills the wrong targets. It can't be the dumb robot. Nor can it be the soldier who sends it to battle, because he or she only decides whether to use it, not what it's going to do. It can't be the designers, because the whole point is that they have created a system able to make autonomous choices about what to target.

This is all smoke and mirrors. The anti-killer-robot campaigners are right when they say now is the time to debate whether this technology is forbidden fruit, better for all if left untouched. They are also right to worry whether killer robots will observe the laws of war. There is no question that killer robots should not be deployed unless they observe those laws with at least the same (sadly inconsistent) reliability as soldiers. But there is no mystery as to how we will achieve that reliability and with it resolve how to ascribe moral responsibility.

There is an analogy here with medicines. Their effects are generally predictable, but a risk of unpleasant side-effects remains. So we cautiously test new drugs during development and only then license them for prescription. When prescribed in accordance with the guidelines, we don't hold doctors, drug companies, or the drugs to account for any bad side-effects that might occur. Rather, the body which approves the medicine is responsible for ensuring overall beneficial outcomes.

So too with killer robots. What we need is a thorough regulatory process. This will test their capabilities and allow them to be deployed only when they reliably observe the laws of war.

Explore further: Ban 'killer robots,' rights group urges

Related Stories

Ban 'killer robots,' rights group urges

November 19, 2012

Hollywood-style robots able to shoot people without permission from their human handlers are a real possibility and must be banned before governments start deploying them, campaigners warned Monday.

The humanitarian case against killer robots

November 26, 2013

Noel Sharkey, the chairman of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, argued his case against killer robots last Friday at Northeastern University, saying that autonomous machines should not be allowed to make ...

Rights group launches campaign to ban 'killer robots'

April 23, 2013

A global rights group launched a campaign on Tuesday to ban Terminator-style "killer robots" amid fears the rise of drone warfare could lead to machines with the power to make their own decisions about killing humans.

Technology one step ahead of war laws

January 6, 2014

Today's emerging military technologies—including unmanned aerial vehicles, directed-energy weapons, lethal autonomous robots, and cyber weapons like Stuxnet—raise the prospect of upheavals in military practices so fundamental ...

Recommended for you

Volvo to supply Uber with self-driving cars (Update)

November 20, 2017

Swedish carmaker Volvo Cars said Monday it has signed an agreement to supply "tens of thousands" of self-driving cars to Uber, as the ride-sharing company battles a number of different controversies.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Feb 14, 2014
Drones should never be banned. They are the best anti terrorist weapon the US has.
5 / 5 (2) Feb 15, 2014
The only problem is, the best anti-terrorist weapon is the best anti-citizen weapon too by its very nature.
not rated yet Feb 15, 2014
So the solution to terrorism is upgraded drone technology? Right...
not rated yet Feb 15, 2014
So far the fight of elites against rest of world required the hiring of large number of soldiers in the opposite camp. These soldiers do represent the potential risk of rebellion, though. The drones controlled from safe hidden underground eliminate this social problem. The Skynet scenario gets more close again.
5 / 5 (1) Feb 15, 2014
Regulate, but resist the urge to ban them
This title means the only one message: regulate the drone usage for masses, but allow them for government. No government can be regulated itself, only global public ban is enforceable here. I'd ban the drones immediately from this perspective - the only problem is, the other countries must do it too. Like all restrictions, they do work only when they're applied globally - if not, they just contribute to technological disbalance between countries, which becomes another source of tension. It's ban would require the close cooperation of all governments together, which is unthinkable scenario in the contemporary world. But its precedents, like the ban of nuclear weapons in space at least illuminates the route for better world.
not rated yet Feb 15, 2014
If the gov really wants to kill you do you think that it makes any difference if it sends a F16 to blow you up or a drone? :/

Drones are developed mainly because they are cheaper than investing in a aircraft with similar or lower capabilities, and by investing i also consider the pilot professional training and the loss if he is killed or even worse captured by the enemy. Machines are easy to replace if u have a factory and funds, but the pilots are a problem since it takes too long to prepare one.
PS: don't forget the lobbying from the industries to promote their products which pretty much in the military is what we call in economics - manufactured demand.
5 / 5 (1) Feb 15, 2014
This is an example, how every weakness gets punished immediately: Putin replaces the USA in contracts of weapons for Egypt. If the USA will ban the drones by now, then the Russia and China will be only happy from it.
If the gov really wants to kill you do you think that it makes any difference if it sends a F16 to blow you up or a drone
It does, because it may not have full control over its pilot. The drone eliminates the weakest point of every government, as I already explained above.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.