Documenting the Coming Singularity

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Closing in on Automated War

The Department of Defense wants to replace a third of its armed vehicles and weaponry with robots by 2015, the Economist reported today. As we've seen from the war in Iraq, the country will not support a war that brings lots of body bags home. The answer to this political reality, as far as the generals are concerned, is to take the men and women out of harm's way altogether. As the Economist correctly points out, "Nobody mourns a robot," although the generals may mourn the expense of a lost robot.

The armed forces already use unmanned vehicles, but they are still controlled remotely by humans. The Pentagon wants to give these robots increasingly greater levels of autonomy, allowing them to operate without human direction apart from the programming supplied by humans.

To achieve this, Ronald Arkin of the Georgia Institute of Technology, in Atlanta, is developing a set of rules of engagement for battlefield robots to ensure that their use of lethal force follows the rules of ethics. In other words, he is trying to create an artificial conscience. Dr Arkin believes that there is another reason for putting robots into battle. It is that they have the potential to act more humanely than people. Stress does not affect a robot's judgement in the way it affects a soldier's. His approach is to create what he calls a “multidimensional mathematical decision space of possible behaviour actions”. Based on inputs that could come from anything from radar data and current position to mission status and intelligence feeds, the system would divide the set of all possible actions into those that are ethical and those that are not. If, say, the drone from which the fatal attack on Mr Atef was launched had sensed that his car was overtaking a school bus, it may have held fire.

Will these developments make war much more palatable to the American public? And if so, will that make them more frequent? And the most important question of all is this: Will humans lose control of their robotic armies altogether. In my opinion, an inexpert as it may be, we will be able to prevent and defend against such an eventuality, and the fewer humans that have to die to protect us, the better. What do you think?

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