Can smarter weapons actually save lives? How can we improve the act of killing? And should we? “If you take a total war point of view and a scorched earth policy to conducting warfare, it doesn’t matter if you have robots or not.”
As we enter the era of artificial intelligence, some argue that our weapons should be smarter to better locate and kill our enemies while minimizing risk to civilians. The justification is not so different than the one for smart thermostats: Data and algorithms can make our technology more efficient, reducing waste and, theoretically, creating a better planet to live on.
It’s just that “reducing waste” means something very different when you’re talking about taking lives as opposed to cooling your bedroom.
But if war and killing are inevitable, it makes sense to make our weapons as precise as possible, argues Ronald Arkin, a well-known robotics expert and associate dean at Georgia Tech. He’s written extensively on the subject — including in a 256-page textbook — and concludes that while he’s not in favor of any weapons per se, he does believe robots with lethal capacity could do a better job protecting people than human soldiers.
He’s not without his opponents.
“This entire space is highly controversial,” Arkin conceded with a chuckle in a recent interview with The Huffington Post.
That’s partially because these robots have yet to be defined. But don’t imagine the Terminator. Think instead of drones that can pilot themselves, locate enemy combatants and kill them without harming civilians. The battlefield of the near future could be filled with these so-called lethal autonomous weapons (commonly abbreviated “LAW”) that could be programmed with some measure of “ethics” to prevent them from striking certain areas.
“The hope is that if these systems can be designed appropriately and used in situations where they will be used appropriately; that they can reduce collateral damage significantly,” Arkin told HuffPost.
That might be an optimistic view. Critics of autonomous weapons worry that once the robots are developed, the technology will proliferate and fall into the wrong hands. Worse, that technology could be a lot scarier than the relatively large drones of today. There could be LAW devices programmed with facial recognition that relentlessly seek out targets (or even broader categories of people). And as journalist David Hambling described in his book Swarm Troopers, advances in technology could allow these robots to become incredibly small and self-sufficient, creating flocks of miniature, solar-powered drones that in effect become weapons of mass destruction far beyond the machines Arkin imagines.
This isn’t simple stuff. But it also isn’t theoretical. The technology is already being developed, which is why experts are calling for an international agreement on its functionality and deployment to happen, well, yesterday.
To learn a bit more about the case for these weapons as lifesaving tools, HuffPost got Arkin on the phone.
Your premise assumes a lot about how consistent our definition of warfare is. Is it realistic to expect that our current model of nations warring with other nations will stay the same? Even now, the self-described Islamic State has an entire strategy that revolves around terrorizing and killing civilians.
That begs the question of whether international humanitarian law will hold valid in the future, and just war theory, for that matter, which most civilized countries adhere to. There are state actors and non-state actors who stray outside the limits or blatantly disregard what is prescribed in international humanitarian law, and that’s what warfare is at this point in time. There have always been war crimes since time immemorial. Civilians have been slaughtered since the beginning of warfare. We’ve been slaughtering each other since all recorded history.
So, the real issue is, will warfare change? And the answer is yes. The hope is that if these systems can be designed appropriately and used in situations where they will be used appropriately; that they can reduce collateral damage significantly. But that’s not to say there won’t be people who use them in ways that are criminal, just as they use human troops in criminal ways right now — authorizing rape, for example, in Africa.
The issue fundamentally is, if we create these systems — and I feel they inevitably will be created, not only because there’s a significant tactical advantage in creating them, but also because, in many cases, they already exist — we must ensure that they adhere to international humanitarian law.
If you take a total war point of view and a scorched earth policy to conducting warfare, it doesn’t matter if you have robots or not. You can drop nuclear weapons on countries and destroy them at this point in time if you choose to do that.
So what is the most important concept for someone who has never considered autonomous weapons before?
The most important concept is, how can we better protect noncombatant life if we are going to continue in warfare. Nobody is building a Terminator. No one wants a Terminator as far as I know. But think superior, precision-guided munitions with the goal of saving lives.
I would also say the discussion we’re having right now is vitally important. And far more important than my own research. We need to do it out of rationality and not out of fear. And we need to find ways to come up with appropriate guidelines and regulations to, where appropriate, restrict the use of this technology in a situation where it’s ill-suited.
I believe that we can save lives in using this technology over existing modes of warfare. And if we achieve that, it’s fundamentally a humanitarian goal.
Read Article (Damon Beres | huffingtonpost.com | 06/03/2016)
To truly engage the topic of warfare, one must have warfare experience and I agree that achieving an effective methodology of warfare requires a humanitarian goal.
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