Robo Ethics: Debate over Rules, Legality of Robots on the Battlefield Lagging, Experts Say

By Magnuson, Stew | National Defense, November 2009 | Go to article overview

Robo Ethics: Debate over Rules, Legality of Robots on the Battlefield Lagging, Experts Say


Magnuson, Stew, National Defense


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As researchers push ahead with algorithms designed to give robots more autonomy--and possibly the capability to fire weapons without a human in the decision loop--ethicists and legal minds warn that not enough thought is being given to the implications of using unmanned systems to apply lethal force.

"We assure ourselves that we will always be 'in the loop,' and yet we're working on systems that for very good reason, for very good battlefield justifications, are designed to take us 'out of the loop,'" said Peter W. Singer, a Brookings Institute scholar and author of "Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century."

Singer is part of a growing chorus of academics, legal experts and technologists who are suggesting that the research into robotics systems is outpacing the defense community's ability to grasp the unintended consequences of introducing this potentially game-changing technology to the battlefield.

Col. Jeff Eggers, Air Force director of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance innovations, said, "These issues of ethics, especially in relation to developing concepts of autonomy, are very pertinent and we need to look at them now as we design our new systems."

Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap Jr., Air Force deputy judge advocate general, said there is a disconnect between the legal and research communities. Lawyers are generally "clueless" about technology and military strategy.

"It's not hard to find lots people who know the law. It's hard to find people ... who understand systems and how systems are used in combat and the limitations and capabilities of those systems," he said at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference.

Meanwhile, researchers are pushing ahead with the technologies that could make it possible for a ground or airborne robot to fire weapons autonomously. And one prominent Army leader, Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch, commanding general of Fort Hood, Texas, and the Army's 3rd Amaored Corps, called at the conference for the military to field ground robots that could autonomously apply lethal force. A weapon in a fixed position searching for insurgents who are planting roadside bombs was one scenario he cited. This technology is mature, and could be saving lives on the battlefield today, said Lynch, who also holds a master's degree in robotics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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The office of the secretary of defense, in its "Fiscal Year 20092034 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap," acknowledged that these legal issues have yet to be worked out. It suggested that Lynch will not be getting his wish anytime soon.

"For a significant period into the future, the decision to pull the trigger or launch a missile from an unmanned system will not be fully automated, but it will remain under the full control of a human operator," the roadmap stated.

It outlined four main fields where the Defense Department should concentrate its robotics efforts: reconnaissance and surveillance; target identification and designation; counter-mine and explosive ordnance disposal; and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear detection. Armed robots were not on the list.

That's not to say that such programs don't exist. The report identified three weaponized unmanned aerial vehicles: the Predator, the Reaper and the Extended Range/Multi-purpose unmanned aerial system.

The Army's Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J., three years ago attempted to field an armed ground robot, the special weapons observation remote reconnaissance direct action systems, or SWORDS. Three were sent to Iraq but never used as intended. Senior Army officers apparently did not have confidence in the system. Designed as a mobile platform, they were put behind sandbags in fixed positions. …

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