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military robots

Robots are an increasingly common sight in U.S. police departments. These unmanned ground vehicles are used for roles that are deemed too hazardous for law enforcement officers, such as inspecting and disarming explosive ordnance.

by   -   April 27, 2013

Killer robots.

Looking at the two words together is enough to conjure up images of chaos and destruction.  They’re an image far too familiar in science fiction settings such as Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. It’s also a concept many A.I. researchers will gladly tell you they’ve been plagued with at least once by friends or colleagues.  However, how much of a real ethical concern do they pose for society?

Updated March 17, 2013 | This month we’ve asked our experts to weigh in on the future of robotics in warfare, and the broadness of this topic has prompted some of our panelists to push back and request that the question be rephrased in narrower terms. Certainly there are many sides to this question, and we plan to tease them out in future RBIs. However, we think it’s important to begin with broad strokes, and so we leave it to our panelists to weigh in, each from their own perspective.

Raffaello-DAndrea.jpg
Raffaello D’Andrea on “How will robots shape the future of warfare?”

How will robots shape the future of war?  I don’t know. I think that the more important question, however, is: what role should robots have in warfare? In my answer I have tried (as much as is humanly possible) to put myself in the role of an alien dispassionately analyzing the situation …

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Daniel-Wilson
Daniel H. Wilson
 on “How will robots shape the future of warfare?”

Robots have already changed the face of modern warfare, particularly through the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly called “drones.” Currently, armed drone aircraft are in widespread use transnationally and have proven highly effective.

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Mark Tilden

Mark Tilden on “How will robots shape the future of warfare?”

Robot machines have been shaping the future of war since the first siege engines appeared in ancient times (I like to think the Trojan Horse was motorized).  Now with technology extending our military reach and impact …

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We hope you will join the discussion. Feel free to post your comment below.

by   -   March 14, 2013

Wonder_Stories_October_1931Study the past if you would define the future. – Confucius

War will always have a human element. Robots will be tools in future conflicts, just as they (and other technologies) have been in the past. To understand how robot use will evolve militarily, it is healthy to look back at history.

by   -   March 13, 2013

Robot machines have been shaping the future of war since the first siege engines appeared in ancient times (I like to think the Trojan Horse was motorized).  Now with technology significantly extending our military reach and impact, small surgical-strike war is becoming more assured, though not — I’m glad to say — cheaper.  Humans are still the best cost-to-benefit weapons for the battlefield and will be so for quite a while.  That offers hope as the personal risks, regardless of ideology, become universally recognized as too damn high.

What also assures me comes from my years of robot gaming: when you have battles between autonomous robots, people just don’t care, as there are no human egos bolstered or defeated by the outcome.  Machines beating on machines has no emotional connection for us, which is where the ceiling of robot-soldier tolerance might stall.

What will be horrific is the first time a humanoid soldier machine is broadcast hurting or killing humans in a war setting.  When I worked in vision technology, we were asked how would a machine tell the difference between a group of soldiers and a pack of boy scouts from a distance?  It couldn’t, which is why human judgement is still the means by which a trigger is pulled.  Even still, when that video broadcasts, everyone in the world will know our place as the dominant species has just become … less so.

But the question comes down to who gets blamed when a robot commits an atrocity?  Without human frailty to take blame on site, is it the remote pilots, the generals, the politicians?  Sadly the precedent for blame-free robot conflict is being settled by beltway-lawyers now.  A new cold war where you’ll be able to legally and blamelessly use a killer-drone App, though you’ll still go to jail for downloading a movie.

Because that’d be immoral.

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by   -   March 13, 2013

How will robots shape the future of war?  I don’t know. I think that the more important question, however, is: what role should robots have in warfare?

In my answer I have tried (as much as is humanly possible) to put myself in the role of an alien dispassionately analyzing the situation.  And when I do, I keep returning to the following conclusion: the best possible outcome for humanity would be for robots to not play any part (with the possible exception of purely defensive roles such as defusing mines) in warfare whatsoever.

If I were an alien, this is what I would first observe:

  1. The ability for the average human to create tools that can harm others is rapidly increasing. This is especially the case for robots and intelligent machines: sensors, actuators, computing platforms, power systems, and other enabling technologies are continually becoming less expensive, more powerful, and more widely available. The result is that increasingly large numbers of people are becoming capable of delivering payloads accurately and over great distances.
  2. The knowledge required to create robots, intelligent machines, and the algorithms that bring them to life are widely accessible and impossible to suppress; knowledge wants to be free in the same way that entropy wants to increase.
  3. Humans have an incredibly strong sense of fairness, and their own research supports this. One of their greatest triumphs as a species is their ability to channel traits such as tribalism, aggression, and competitiveness – the same traits that lead to warfare – to a benign medium that results in their great joy and entertainment, not to mention a significant economic activity: organized sports. Central to this incredible accomplishment is the establishment of well-defined rules and regulations that strive to ensure a fair competition.

And this is what I would then conclude:

Dominant powers are being seduced by the advantages that robots can bring to the battlefield.  In the short term, this is a perfectly rational strategy. In the long term, however, this leads to an arms race. Even though a dominant power may be able to maintain its lead by continually developing robotic weapons, the capabilities of its adversaries, while inferior, will co-develop and eventually reach levels that will allow them to inflict catastrophic damage. 

Furthermore, asymmetric warfare insidiously erodes the sense of fairness outlined in point 3, with detrimental consequences for both sides.  The losing side is disenfranchised, which coupled with points 1 and 2 above, is extremely destabilizing. The winning side loses its moral compass and the fabric that holds its society together begins to unravel, leading to home-grown disenfranchisement and destabilization there as well. 

The net result of this robotic arms race will be a high-volatility stalemate, with dangerous weapons available to the masses and a lack of social restraint to prevent their indiscriminate use.    

If I were an alien, and thus immune to personal and economic factors that could influence my impartiality (such as having a loved one in combat, or being employed by a weapons dealer or manufacturer), I could only conclude that humanity would greatly benefit from imposing strict and far-reaching bans on the use of robotic technology in warfare.

As a human, not only am I skeptical that this will happen, I admit that my personal views are situation dependent: if my daughter were in combat, I wouldn’t care about asymmetry or fairness, I would want her to be as safe as possible. I don’t think that this makes me a hypocrite, it just makes me human.

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Disney Robotics
September 17, 2017


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