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Ethics of Military Robots February 10, 2010

Posted by emiliekopp in industry robot spotlight.
Tags: , , , , ,

I recently became familiar with the DoD’s Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap, a document that forecasts the evolution and adoption of robot technologies in modern warfare. For a government document, it was actually a pretty interesting read.

Many people are timid when discussing military robots, and justifiably so. While most of the robots are meant to perform tasks that are simply too dull, dirty or dangerous to warrant the risk of human life (for instance, MULE robots or robots that dispose of IEDs), most of the mainstream media attention is geared towards the robots with guns. And that’s when the references to Skynet come rolling in.

What happens when robots have guns? If something goes wrong, who is ultimately held responsible? The robot? The operator? The designer? The supplier of electromechanical parts? The chain of responsible parties could go on and on.

So we haven’t found the answer. But initiating the conversations is an good start.

P.W. Singer’s Wired for War has brought the conversation to the mainstream. The main point Singer addresses is that once you begin to move humans away from the battlefield (i.e give the guns to robots), they become more willing to use force. So as you reduce the risk of human life on one side, you become more willing to shed human life on the other. Understandably scary.

Another resource I found incredibly interesting is a report prepared for the US Department of Navy’s Office of Naval Research by California Polytechnic State University: Autonomous Military Robotics: Risk, Ethics, and Design. This report takes a more technical approach to understanding the ethics behind robots in the battlefield. While it addresses many of the concerns that Singer has brought to light, it also entertains the point that robots are “unaffected by the emotions, adrenaline, and stress that cause soldiers to overreact or deliberately overstep the Rules of Engagement and commit atrocities, that is to say, war crimes.” Of course, this assumes that humans are capable of programming robots to make ethically sound decisions on their own, which in turn warrants a walk down memory lane with Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robotics.

Bottom line: technology is a double-edged sword (thank you, Ray Kurzweil). There will be pro’s and con’s to exponentially-advancing technologies, especially with battlefield robots. Yet, we shouldn’t feel like we need to tip toe around the issue. The more we talk about it, the better equipped we’ll be when decisions must be made.



1. deirdrewalsh - February 10, 2010

Thanks for sharing that information, Emilie. I’m sure this is a heated topic, but overall, I think people need to remember that technology isn’t good or bad. It’s what people do with it.

2. The DoD opens up to social networking « LabVIEW Robotics - March 2, 2010

[…] the past weeks, I’ve talked a lot about the DoD and their plans for developing unmanned systems. This week, let’s talk about the DoD’s […]

3. Justin - July 1, 2010

Driving down the cost of war (in this case the “human cost”) seems to make war more efficient.

Does that lowered cost make it easier for policy-makers to pursue war? Would current military activity in Afghanistan and Pakistan be politically viable without UAS?

Brilliant question! Thanks for this read.

4. sheo shankar singh - October 25, 2010

i want to make military robot for college project.

5. sheo shankar singh - October 25, 2010

please help me.

emiliekopp - October 25, 2010

Hey there sheo, you’re going to have to be a little more specific than that. What kind of robot are you wanting to build?

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