Monday, February 04, 2008

Technology in Wartime: autonomous weapons systems

Technology in Wartime is the title of a recent conference organized by Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. (Videos of the conference panels are available here.)

As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, one subject to come up repeatedly was autonomous weapons system and whether computer professionals could ethically participate in their development.

Ronald Arkin, director of the Mobile Robot Laboratory at Georgia Tech, who said that his work is partly funded by the military, also had this to say (quoting the Chronicle article): "Pentagon planners are determined to create war-fighting machines that eventually will be able to decide - autonomously - whether or not to kill. Since war-bots are coming, Arkin said, computer scientists should help design their self-control programs."

There are arguments on both sides of this issue, but the notion that certain people in the Pentagon are "determined" to pursue the development and deployment of robotic weapons systems that will eventually operate autonomously rings true. There are, in fact, already a few such systems in testing.

The word "autonomous" needs closer examination here. For at least the immediate future, we're not talking about conscious machines with the potential for rising up in a revolution against those who built them (as in the Terminator movies). A better comparison would be the weapon-bearing robots depicted in Star Wars II and III. Of course there's always the possibility for defective circuitry or programming leading to berserker behavior.

The greater danger, it seems to me, is that robotic weapons make aggression an easier option. When you can send machines to kill, instead of soldiers, it removes the constraint on the use of force currently imposed by the risk of losing American lives. Even worse, it removes the constraint imposed by soldiers' own sense of morality. Those who favor autonomous robotic weapons suggest robots can be programmed to behave more ethically than human soldiers under fire, but the reality is more likely to be that they will follow orders, no matter how heinous those orders might be.

It's high time society begin a discussion about robotic weaponry, and not leave all the decisions to those operating behind the curtain of a black budget - to whom it wouldn't be unreasonable to attribute an enthusiasm for killing with impunity.

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