Academic journal article Military Review

Responsibility Practices in Robotic Warfare

Academic journal article Military Review

Responsibility Practices in Robotic Warfare

Article excerpt


UNMANNED AERIAL VEHICLES (UAVs), also known as drones, are commonplace in U.S. military operations. Many predict increased military use of more sophisticated and more autonomous robots. (1) Increased use of robots has the potential to transform how those directly involved in warfare, as well as the public, perceive and experience war. Military robots allow operators and commanders to be miles away from the battle, engaging in conflicts virtually through computer screens and controls. Video cameras and sensors operated by robots provide technologically mediated renderings of what is happening on the ground, affecting the actions and attitudes of all involved.

Central to the ethical concerns raised by robotic warfare, especially the use of autonomous military robots, are issues of responsibility and accountability. Who will be responsible when robots decide for themselves and behave in unpredictable ways or in ways that their human partners do not understand? For example, who will be responsible if an autonomously operating unmanned aircraft crosses a border without authorization or erroneously identifies a friendly aircraft as a target and shoots it down? (2) Will a day come when robots themselves are considered responsible for their actions? (3)

In principle, humans retain control of--and responsibility for--the behavior of autonomous machines. However, establishing precisely who is responsible for a machine's behavior is challenging. Autonomous machines, no matter how they are defined, developed, or used, operate as part of broad sociotechnical systems involving numerous individuals and organizations.

We advocate the concurrent development of new responsibility practices with the development of new technologies rather than before or after those technologies are developed and adopted for use. This is necessary because literature in the field of science and technology studies shows that the trajectory of a technology's development is unpredictable; how a technology takes shape depends on complex negotiations among relevant social groups. (4) The technologies eventually adopted and used are not predetermined by nature or any other factor. No one can predict with certainty how a developing technology will turn out or what new technologies will emerge. In the course of development, a new technology may change in response to many factors, including changes in funding, historical events such as wars, changes in the regulatory environment, and market indicators. The technologies that succeed (i.e., that are adopted and used) are the outcome of complex negotiations among many actors, including engineers and scientists, users, manufacturers, the public, policymakers, politicians, and others.

Negotiations among the actors involved with a new technology are part of the overall discourse around that technology from its earliest stages of development. The discourse about responsibility and autonomous military robots is a case in point; current discourse provides an opportunity to observe issues of responsibility being worked out early in the technology's development. The negotiations between researchers, developers, engineers, philosophers, policymakers, military authorities, lawyers, journalists, and human rights activists are taking place in the media and academic journals, at conferences and trade shows, through drafting new policies and regulations, in negotiating international treaties, and also through designing and developing the technologies. This process contrasts starkly with the all-too-common idea that issues of responsibility are decided after a technology is developed or separately from technological design.

Framing robots as autonomous challenges ordinary notions of responsibility. Autonomy in daily life and moral philosophy implies acting on one's own, controlling one's self, and being responsible for one's actions. On the other hand, being responsible generally means that individuals have some kind of influence or control over their actions and the outcomes of those actions. …

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