Documenting the Coming Singularity

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Soldier, Taking Orders From Its Ethical Judgment Center

NYT - November 24, 2008, by Cornelia Dean

ATLANTA — In the heat of battle, their minds clouded by fear, anger or vengefulness, even the best-trained soldiers can act in ways that violate the Geneva Conventions or battlefield rules of engagement. Now some researchers suggest that robots could do better.

“My research hypothesis is that intelligent robots can behave more ethically in the battlefield than humans currently can,” said Ronald C. Arkin, a computer scientist at Georgia Tech, who is designing software for battlefield robots under contract with the Army. “That’s the case I make.”

Robot drones, mine detectors and sensing devices are already common on the battlefield but are controlled by humans. Many of the drones in Iraq and Afghanistan are operated from a command post in Nevada. Dr. Arkin is talking about true robots operating autonomously, on their own.

He and others say that the technology to make lethal autonomous robots is inexpensive and proliferating, and that the advent of these robots on the battlefield is only a matter of time. That means, they say, it is time for people to start talking about whether this technology is something they want to embrace. “The important thing is not to be blind to it,” Dr. Arkin said. Noel Sharkey, a computer scientist at the University of Sheffield in Britain, wrote last year in the journal Innovative Technology for Computer Professionals that “this is not a ‘Terminator’-style science fiction but grim reality.”

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