Ban the killer robots before it’s too late

700_bfff142945f8ce2e516adc538af5c210As wars become increasingly automated, we must ask ourselves how far we want to delegate responsibility to machines. Where do we want to draw the line?

Weapons systems have been evolving for millennia and there have always been attempts to resist them. But does that mean that we should just sit back and accept our fate and hand over the ultimate responsibility for killing to machines?

Over the last few months there has been an increasing debate about the use of fully autonomous robot weapons: armed robots that once launched can select their own targets and kill them without further human intervention.

Some have argued that robots could be more accurate on the battlefield than human soldiers and save more civilian lives. But this is speculation based on assumptions about future developments of computer hardware and software. It is no more than “hopeware” — since the 1950s, Artificial Intelligence has moved at a snail’s pace compared to what proponents have predicted.

Others argue that even if robots could be more accurate under some restricted circumstances at some unknown time in the future, we just shouldn’t grant machines the decision about who lives or dies.

At this point, we cannot rely on machines having the independent facility to conform to international law. Current sensing systems are not up to the task. And even if machines had adequate sensing mechanisms they would still be missing the vital components of battlefield awareness and common sense reasoning to make decisions about who and when it is appropriate to kill.

Robots do not have the agency to decide if striking a target is proportional to the expected military advantage. There is no metric for this. Much of war is art and not science. A military commander must make a qualitative decision about the number of civilian lives that can be risked for a particular military objective. And that commander can be held accountable.

A robot doesn’t have the moral agency to be held accountable. Some would argue that the commander who sends a robot on a mission would be responsible (last point of contact).

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