Understanding "The Loop": Regulating the Next Generation of War Machines

By Marra, William C.; McNeil, Sonia K. | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Understanding "The Loop": Regulating the Next Generation of War Machines


Marra, William C., McNeil, Sonia K., Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy


INTRODUCTION: AUTOMATION AND AUTONOMY
  I. MACHINE FUNCTIONING AND THE
     DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AUTONOMY AND
     AUTOMATION
     A. Understanding "the Loop" : OODA
        and How Machines Work
     FIGURE 1--Boyd's OODA Loop
     B. Toward a Distinction Between
        "Autonomy" and "Automation".
        1. The First Attribute of Autonomy:
           Frequency of Operator Interaction
        2. The Second Attribute of Autonomy:
           Tolerance for Environmental
           Uncertainty
        3. The Third Attribute of Autonomy:
        Level of Assertiveness
     C. The Autonomy Spectrum
 II. DRONE WARFARE: YESTERDAY, TODAY,
     AND TOMORROW
     A. Yesterday's Drones
     B. Today's Drones
        1. Aerial Drones
        2. Land-Bound Drones
        3. An Automated,
        Non-Autonomous Fleet
     C. Tomorrow's Drone
III. LAW AND ETHICS FOR
     AUTONOMOUS SYSTEMS
     A. Using OODA to Regulate Drones
     B. The Moral Limits of Drone
        Technology
CONCLUSION

INTRODUCTION: AUTOMATION AND AUTONOMY

Drones have revolutionized warfare. They may soon transform civilian life too. America's military efforts abroad are spearheaded by unmanned aerial vehicles--Predators, Reapers, Global Hawks--with capabilities once only dreamed of by science fiction writers. Drones are simply "the only game in town" to fight hard-to-find terrorists in the tribal regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to former CIA Director Leon Panetta. (1) And drones have already been introduced over our domestic skies, patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border (2) and assisting with law enforcement efforts. (3) Congress has voted to accelerate this trend, directing the Federal Aviation Administration to rethink restrictions on the domestic use of drones by 2015. (4)

As amazing as today's drones may seem, they are just the "Model T" of robot technology. (5) Most are souped-up, remote-controlled airplanes; they still have a human pilot, but he or she now sits at a military base rather than in the cockpit. Today's drones do not think, decide, or act on their own. In engineering speak, they are merely "automated."

The drones of tomorrow are expected to leap from automation to "autonomy." Tomorrow's sophisticated machines will have the ability to execute missions without guidance from a human operator. They will increasingly be used alongside--as well as in the air above--people. Drones will augment civilian life: Some countries are experimenting with robotic prison guards (6) and in-home caregivers. (7) Robotic warehouse workers, ambulance and taxi drivers, and medical assistants are in the works, too. (8) Today's automated drones raise difficult policy questions, but those questions will seem pedestrian compared to the issues created by tomorrow's autonomous systems.

Regulations for the drones of today should be crafted with an eye toward the technologies of tomorrow. Policymakers must better understand how the next generation of autonomous drones will differ from the merely automated machines of today. The distinction between automation and autonomy is vital. Today, humans are still very much "in the loop."9 Humans generally decide when to launch a drone, where it should fly, and whether it should take action against a suspect. As drones develop greater autonomy, however, humans will increasingly be "out of the loop." Human operators will not be necessary to decide when a drone (or perhaps a swarm of microscopic drones) takes off, where it goes, how it acts, what it looks for, and with whom it shares what it finds.

Today's debate about humans, autonomy, and "the loop" relies on language too imprecise to draw out and analyze the relevant differences between drones and predecessor technologies. What does it mean for a human to be "inside," "outside," or "on" the loop? And why does it matter? Further confusing the issues, the debate over "drones" covers a tremendous range of technologies, including not only those deployed today but also their even more sophisticated progeny of tomorrow. …

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