by Steven Metz
June 10, 2016

from WorldPoliticsReview Website

Navy Rear Adm. Mat Winter, left, and Navy Adm. Jonathan Greenert

with the Navy-sponsored Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot,

Washington, Feb. 4, 2015

(Department of Defense photo).


"Fifteen years after a drone first fired missiles in combat," journalist Josh Smith recently wrote from Afghanistan, "the U.S. military's drone program has expanded far beyond specific strikes to become an everyday part of the war machine."

Important as this is, it is only a first step in a much bigger process.


As a report co-authored in January 2014 by Robert Work and Shawn Brimley put it,

"a move to an entirely new war-fighting regime in which unmanned and autonomous systems play central roles" has begun.

Where this ultimately will lead is unclear.

Work, who went to become the deputy secretary of defense in May 2014, and Brimley represent one school of thought about robotic war. Drawing from a body of ideas about military revolutions from the 1990s, they contend that roboticization is inevitable, largely because it will be driven by advances in the private sector.


Hence the United States military must embrace and master it rather than risk having enemies do so and gain an advantage.

On the other side of the issue are activists who want to stop the development of military robots. For instance the United Nations Human Rights Council has called for a moratorium on lethal autonomous systems.


Nongovernmental organizations have created what they call the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which is modeled on recent efforts to ban land mines and cluster munitions.


Other groups and organizations share this perspective.

Undoubtedly the political battle between advocates and opponents of military robots will continue. However, regardless of the outcome of that battle, developments in the next decade will already set the trajectory for the future and have cascading effects.


At several points, autonomous systems will cross a metaphorical Rubicon from which there is no turning back.


  • -  One such Rubicon is when some nation deploys a robot that can decide to kill a human based on programmed instructions and an algorithm rather than a direct instruction from an operator.


    In military parlance, these would be robots without "a human in the loop."

    In a sense, this would not be entirely new:

    Booby traps and mines have killed without a human pulling the trigger for millennia.

    But the idea that a machine would make something akin to a decision rather than simply killing any human that comes close to it adds greater ethical complexity than a booby trap or mine, where the human who places it has already taken the ethical decision to kill.


    "Creating autonomous military robots

    that can act at least as ethically as human soldiers

    appears to be a sensible goal."



    In Isaac Asimov's science fiction collection "I, Robot," which was one of the earliest attempts to grapple with the ethics of autonomous systems, an ironclad rule programmed into all such machines was that,

    "a robot may not injure a human being."

    Clearly that is an unrealistic boundary, but as an important 2008 report sponsored by the U.S. Navy argued,

    "Creating autonomous military robots that can act at least as ethically as human soldiers appears to be a sensible goal."

    Among the challenges to meeting this goal that the report's authors identified,

    "creating a robot that can properly discriminate among targets is one of the most urgent."

    In other words, the key is not the technology for killing, but the programmed instructions and algorithms.


    But that also makes control extraordinarily difficult, since programmed instructions can be changed remotely and in the blink of an eye, instantly transforming a benign robot into a killer.


  • A second Rubicon will be crossed when non-state entities field military robots.


    Since most of the technology for military robots will arise from the private sector, anyone with the money and expertise to operate them will be able to do so.


    That includes,

    • corporations

    • vigilantes

    • privateers

    • criminal organizations

    • violent extremist movements, as well as contractors working on their behalf

    Even if efforts to control the use of robots by state militaries in the form of international treaties are successful, there would be little to constrain non-state entities from using them.


    Nations constrained by treaties could be at a disadvantage when facing non-state enemies that are not.


  • A third Rubicon will be crossed when autonomous systems are no longer restricted to being temporary mobile presences that enter a conflict zone, linger for a time, then leave, but are an enduring presence on the ground and in the water, as well as in the air, for the duration of an operation.


    Pushing this idea even further, some experts believe that military robots will not be large, complex autonomous systems, but swarms of small, simple machines networked for a common purpose. Like an insect swarm, this type of robot could function even if many of its constituent components were destroyed or broke down.


    Swarming autonomous networks would represent one of the most profound changes in the history of armed conflict.


    In his seminal 2009 book "Wired for War," Peter Singer wrote,

    "Robots may not be poised to revolt, but robotic technologies and the ethical questions they raise are all too real."

    This makes it vital to understand the points of no return.


    Even that is only a start:

    Knowing that the Rubicon has been crossed does not alone tell what will come next.

When Caesar and his legion crossed the Rubicon River in 49 B.C., everyone knew that some sort of conflict was inevitable.


But no one could predict Caesar's victory, much less his later assassination and all that it brought. Although the parameters of choice had been bounded, much remained to be determined.

Similarly, Rubicon crossings by military robots are inevitable, but their long-term outcomes will remain unknown.


It is therefore vital for the global strategic community, including governments and militaries as well as scholars, policy experts, ethicists, technologists, nongovernmental organizations and international organizations to undertake a collaborative campaign of learning and public education.


Political leaders must engage the public on this issue without hysteria or hyperbole, identifying all the alternative scenarios for who might use military robots, where they might use them, and what they might use them for.


With such a roadmap, it might be possible for political leaders and military officials to push roboticization in a way that limits the dangers, rather than amplifying them.