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Experts Question Ethical Concerns Involving Robotic Warfare

August 17, 2009

A new wave of robotic weaponry is changing the face of modern warfare, offering the possibility of a future where countries can wage war without having to put soldiers or civilians on the battlefield, AFP reported.

Armed U.S. drones fly over Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan while “pilots” control them with a joystick from thousands of miles away. Other robots under development could soon ferry supplies on dangerous routes and fire at enemy tanks.

However, analysts question the technology’s many ethical and legal concerns, while political and military leaders have yet to fully grasp its implications.

Peter Singer, author of “Wired for War,” posed the question: “What’s the effect on our politics? To be able to carry out operations with less human cost makes great sense. It is a great thing, you save lives.”

“But on the other hand,” he added, “it might makes nations more cavalier about the use of force.”

Lawrence Korb, a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense, said that while cruise missiles and air strikes have already made war a more remote event for the American public, robots could offer the tantalizing scenario of “pain-free” military action.

Korb said all of this leads to a much larger question of whether this technology makes it too easy to go to war.

Tens of thousands of sophisticated robots with unmanned vehicles possibly designed to automatically open fire could eventually be deployed into uncharted territory.

Many experts warn that supervising robotic systems could become complicated as the technology progresses, yet U.S. officials insist a human will always be “in the loop” when it comes to pulling the trigger.

More autonomous robots that will require less and less guidance are already a mainstay of modern military research. The U.S. Air Force’s plans to have a single human operator eventually supervise three drones at once instead of one aircraft.

Meanwhile, the reality of numerous robots in combat producing a stream of information and requiring split-second decisions could prove daunting.

Retired Army colonel Thomas Adams said in “Wired for War” that future robotic weapons “will be too fast, too small, too numerous and will create an environment too complex for humans to direct.”

He said that innovations with robots are rapidly taking us to a place where we may not want to go, but probably are unable to avoid.

Singer said experience has shown that humans are sometimes reluctant to override computerized weapons, placing more faith in the machine than their own judgment.

U.S. Navy officers deferred to Aegis missile defense computers, which identified an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf as “an assumed enemy,” in 1988. However, the officers’ radar and radio information had indicated it was a civilian plane before it was shot down.

Ellen Purdy, the Pentagon’s enterprise director of joint ground robotics, said the military is still trying to figure out how an armed robot on the ground should be designed and operated to conform to the law of armed conflict.

Purdy said nobody has answered that question yet, adding “there’s a threshold where just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”

Many human rights groups are now beginning to take notice of the warfare implications as dozens of countries join the robotic arms race.

While drones are designed to provide more precise targeting that can minimize civilian casualties, many human rights activists are concerned about weapons that could shoot without a human command.

Experts say it remains to be seen how international laws could prosecute an entirely autonomous machine that committed a war crime.

Marc Garlasco, a military adviser at Human Rights Watch, asked who would be responsible for such an atrocity.

“Is it the developer of the weapons system? Is it the developer of the software? Is it the company that made the weapon? Is it the military decision-maker who decided to use that weapon?” he asked.

Image Caption: The SUGV, or Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle, takes a look around Doña Ana Range Complex, N.M., July 30, during a three-day training exercise conducted by Soldiers of the 2nd Combined Arms Battalion to test the experimental technologies of the Army Future Combat Systems. Photo Credit: Stephen Baack




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