Should robots kill? The ethical dilemma of robotics

Posted by Ian on Nov 26, 2008 in blog | No Comments

[The Foster-Miller Talon SWORDS robot]

In 2007, three Foster-Miller Talon SWORDS robots were deployed in Iraq. All three were armed with an M249 machine gun (which fires 5.56-millimeter rounds at 750 rounds per minute). Although none of the robots were utilised in live fire combat, the deployment of the units represents the first activation of robots designed specifically to break Isaac Asimov’s First Law of Robotics: ‘A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.’

[The Foster-Miller Talon SWORDS robot equipped with various weaponry]
For the last few years, I’ve been following the New York Times‘ coverage of the advance of the US Army towards developing and implementing robotic soldiers – or at least autonomous robots to be deployed for specific purposes – e.g. bombing attacks or clearing snipers from buildings. It goes without saying that there are significant ethical and existential issues regarding the push towards autonomous killing machines. A recent article from the NYT flagged just this issue – stating their desire to be able to design and programme ethical algorithms for robots to create hierarchical value-systems for determining whether a potential action is ethical or not.
This may seem like a reasonable proposition – a way of reigning in the autonomous potential for robots to act in unethical ways. What concerns me is, however, two issues. Firstly, is it ethical to be designing and developing such robots/machines in the first place? Would it not be catastrophic to social relationships globally if a nation-state was able to deploy a force of robots thus ensuring that the only human casualties would be those of the other side? Would this not remove the technologically empowered states civilian population’s apprehension to go to war in the first place? Could war then merely become a utilitarian, industrial action of machines vs machines? Eisenhower’s farewell address speech as president declaring the dangers of the military industrial complex resonates all the more these days…
Secondly, what are the implications of developing autonomous killing machines before we have domestic, civilian counter-parts? While we are pushing to develop or at least simulate artificial intelligence in civilian robots, should we even be considering creating utilitarian autonomous killing machines? What would be the implications of these two research paths synergising? We have seen The Terminator film series? And I hope some of us have read Isaac Asimov’s robot series.
New York Times articles about robots:
A Soldier, Taking Orders From Its Ethical Judgment Center (24 Nov 2008)
The Real Transformers (29 July 2007)
Do Robots Dream of Electric Lovborgs? (5 Feb 2006)
New Model Army Soldier Rolls Closer to Battle (16 Feb 2005)
–(Op/Ed response: When Robots March Off to War (7 Letters) (22 Feb 2005))
Robotic Road Trip on a Military Mission (9 Oct 2003)
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