Will robots make decision on who to kill?

Flying killer drones are sometimes used against people in the kill zones of Pakistan and other countries based on behavior that fits a computer profile—carrying what looks like a weapon, or loading a truck with what look like explosives.   Now military researchers are taking this a step further.  They are working on artificial intelligence programs that will give autonomy to the drones.  The drone’s program will make the kill decision, subject—perhaps—to the human operator’s veto.

We now have a President who claims the right to issue kill orders without accountability.   Now the world is moving toward kill orders without human responsibility.

Over the next decade, changes in computing power will enable teams of hi-tech drones to operate virtually on their own, or as “robotic wingmen” to piloted aircraft, said Werner Dahm, the Air Force’s former top scientist. ****

One veteran robotics scientist, Ronald Arkin, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, believes that countries will inevitably deploy independent robots capable of killing an enemy without a human pushing a button.

Arkin, who has worked on US defense programs for years, argues that robotic weapons can and should be designed as “ethical” warriors, with the ability to distinguish combatants from innocent civilians.

Without emotions to cloud their judgment and anger driving their actions, the robots could wage war in a more restrained, “humane” way, in accordance with the laws of war, Arkin said.

“It is not my belief that an unmanned system will be able to be perfectly ethical in the battlefield, but I am convinced that they can perform more ethically than human soldiers are capable of,” he wrote.

via Defense News.

This is the kind of thinking that leads to another “Nobody could have foreseen… …” moment.


Ben Emmerson, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and terrorism, said in late October that the United Nations will investigate civilian deaths caused by U.S. flying killer drones.  As if in response, one of President Obama’s first actions after winning the Presidential election was to order a drone strike in Yemen.

I do not claim that everyone killed by the drones is an innocent, nor do I claim that there is something especially reprehensible about drone technology, as compared to, say, napalm bombs or cluster bombs.   Drones are useful weapons and useful for surveillance.

The issue is constitutional.  Do we want to give the President—any President—the power to sign death warrants based on secret criteria?  We have a curious kind of double-think on this issue.  On the one hand, President Obama boasts of the drone program’s success.  At the same time, the U.S. government claims the drone program is a secret and refuses to officially acknowledge that it exists.

Now the U.S. military and CIA are talking about taking irresponsibility to a new level—putting the killer drones on automatic pilot.

As often happens, science fiction writers were thinking about these issues before anyone else.  Click on Watchbird to read Robert Sheckley’s 1953 short story.  Or find a copy of John Shirley’s 1985 novel Eclipse and read the opening chapter.

Click on the following links for more information.

When Drones Decide to Kill on Their Own from The Diplomat.

The Next Generation in U.S. Robotic War by Agence France-Presse.

‘Moral Robots’: the Future of War or Dystopian Fiction in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

A future for drones: Automated killing in the Washington Post.

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