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

13 March 2013

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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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Raffaello D'Andrea is a panel member for Robohub's Robotics by Invitation series.

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