Tuesday, March 12, 2013


It doesn't take a science-fiction fanatic to foresee a time in the not-too-distant future where "autonomous weapons technology" or "human-out-of-the-loop" systems start to enter combat instead of human soldiers. In fact, given the challenges of artificial intelligence, it's likely that many of us think that such a future will be here sooner than it will actually occur. After all, we thought that we'd have flying cars by now, didn't we?

So people have already started putting thought into the ethical ramifications of robotic weapons. Whether it's a plan for an international ban on further research into "killer robots," or looking into means of creating "ethical robotic systems" that would be programmed to follow international laws of war and rules of engagement, people are looking for ways to avoid the nightmare scenarios of lethal machines that can wage war without the supposed limitations of human scruples and squeamishness.

Good luck with that.

In the end, robotic soldiers are going to be given the same tasks that human soldiers are - win the war (make the other side give up) as quickly as possible and with as little disruption to the lives of "the folks back home" as can be reasonably managed. And they'll have the added benefit of when the enemy turns out to be skilled, tenacious and well-armed, it doesn't result in as many flag-draped coffins.

In the end, the application of ethics to anything is a statement that there are more important things than winning. Even if we never speak of it, the entire point behind the concept of rules of warfare is the idea that it's better to lose a life or a battle or a war than it is to take certain actions in pursuit of victory. But when was the last time you heard of a nation being extolled because they followed the rules to the letter - and suffered a crushing defeat because of it? Where are the praises of a nation that allowed a war to drag on for years, because a more immediate victory would have entailed breaking the rules?

When autonomous weapons become technologically, economically and politically feasible, people are unlikely to worry about whether or not they are ethically feasible. Mainly because they're likely to still be worried about making sure that the people who die for their nation, and the people left bereft by that sacrifice, are somewhere else. War is the price that governments sometimes decide that they're willing to pay for what they understand that they (or their populations) want or need. And like anyone who is paying an unpleasant price for something, they'd rather that the final bill was as low as possible. Only if ethical warfare lowers that bill, will it become an integral part of future military technology.

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