Let Slip the Robots of War: Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems Might Be More Moral Than Human Soldiers

By Bailey, Ronald | Reason, April 2015 | Go to article overview

Let Slip the Robots of War: Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems Might Be More Moral Than Human Soldiers


Bailey, Ronald, Reason


Lethal autonomous weapons systems that can select and engage targets do not yet exist, but they are being developed. Are the ethical and legal problems that such "killer robots" pose so fraught that their development must be banned?

Human Rights Watch thinks so. In its 2012 report, Losing Humanity: The Case Against Killer Robots, the activist group demanded that the nations of the world "prohibit the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons through an international legally binding instrument." Similarly, the robotics and ethics specialists who founded the International Committee on Robot Arms Control want "a legally binding treaty to prohibit the development, testing, production and use of autonomous weapon systems in all circumstances." Several international organizations have launched a global Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and a multilateral meeting under the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons was held in Geneva, Switzerland, last year to debate the technical, ethical, and legal implications of autonomous weapons. "We are concerned," meeting's organizers say in their Call to Action, "about weapons that operate on their own without human supervision. The campaign seeks to prohibit taking the human 'out-of-the-loop' with respect to targeting and attack decisions on the batdefield." A follow-up meeting is scheduled for April 2015.

At first blush, it might seem only sensible to ban remorseless automated killing machines. Who wants to encounter the Terminator on the battlefield? Proponents of a ban offer four big arguments. The first is that it is morally wrong to delegate life-and-death decisions to machines. The second is that it will simply be impossible to instill fundamental legal and ethical principles into machines in such a way as to comply adequately with the laws of war. The third is that autonomous weapons cannot be held morally accountable for their actions. And the fourth is that, since deploying killer robots removes human soldiers from risk and reduces harm to civilians, they make war more likely.

To these objections, law professors Kenneth Anderson of American University and Matthew Waxman of Columbia University respond that an outright ban "trades whatever risks autonomous weapon systems might pose in war for the real, if less visible, risk of failing to develop forms of automation that might make the use of force more precise and less harmful for civilians caught near it."

Choosing whether to kill a human being is the archetype of a moral decision. When deciding whether to pull the trigger, a soldier consults his conscience and moral precepts; a robot has no conscience or moral instincts. But does that really matter? "Moral" decision making by machines will also occur in non-lethal contexts. Self-driving cars will have to choose what courses of action to take when a collision is imminent--e.g., to protect their occupants or to minimize all casualties. But deploying autonomous vehicles could reduce the carnage of traffic accidents by as much as 90 percent. That seems like a significant moral and practical benefit.

"What matters morally is the ability consistently to behave in a certain way and to a specified level of performance," argue Anderson and Waxman. War robots would be no more moral agents than self-driving cars, yet they may well offer significant benefits, such as better protecting civilians stuck in and around battle zones.

But can killer robots be expected to obey fundamental legal and ethical principles at the level that human soldiers do? Georgia Tech roboticist Ronald Arkin counters that lethal autonomous weapon systems "will potentially be capable of performing more ethically on the battlefield than are human soldiers." While human soldiers are moral agents possessed of consciences, they are also flawed people engaged in the most intense and unforgiving forms of aggression. Under the pressure of battle, fear, panic, rage, and vengeance can overwhelm the moral sensibilities of soldiers; the result, all too often, is an atrocity. …

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