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The Drone Wars

March 15, 2012

 Or why we should all read more science fiction

An MQ-9 Reaper drone.Photo: Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt, US Air Force

Do we need laws for robots? Are robots the perfect soldiers, or are life and death too serious matters to be left to the machines? Would we be better off with robots fighting our wars for us? Or will autonomous military robots ultimately make the nightmares from the Matrix and Terminator movies come true? And doesn’t anyone read Asimov these days?

Les også PRIO-forsker Kristin Bergtora Sandviks glimrende kronikk “Morgendagens kriger” på norsk i Aftenposten.

In his 1957 novel The Naked Sun, Isaac Asimov described a society where robots grossly outnumber human beings. The novel is set in a rather distant future and the plot unfolds on Solaria, a fictional planet far from Earth. In the real world in 2012, human beings still outnumber robots by a factor of almost 1000:1. However, this status quo will not last forever. In fact, the situation is rapidly changing.

Robots are now better, cheaper and more ubiquitous than ever. Both supply and demand are ever-increasing, both in a slow, steady growth and by giant leaps. Even if we will not be outnumbered any time soon – if ever – we will very likely be surrounded by robots in the near future. There are robots all around us already. They build our cars, milk our cows and vacuum clean our homes. And as we get better and better at building robots, we find more uses for them every day. Many scientists believe that we will have to get used to meeting robots not only in new places but also in entirely new ways. Not in the distant future, but soon.

Armed and dangerous

I am not saying that this is a bad thing. On the contrary, I welcome this rise of the machines. Most robots are designed to make our lives better and easier, and I really believe that they do. And that they will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. Some robots can even make our lives longer, such as robotic surgery systems or the robot bomb squads in Afghanistan and elsewhere. However, there are also robots out there designed to make the lives of human beings considerably shorter. Yes, they are actually made to kill you! By «you», I don’t necessarily mean you, of course. But with the Obama administration insisting on the right to have just about anyone – including American citizens – executed by drone for pretty vague reasons, there is a small but real chance that you might find yourself in the crosshairs of a Reaper drone one very unpleasant day.

It is also worth considering that «some of the robots out there» doesn’t refer to two or three or even a hundred. There are already hundreds thousands of robots out there capable of hunting down and killing human beings¹. According to Foreign Policy, the Pentagon now boasts a fleet of approximately 7,500 drones. While most of the time, military drones are used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, many of these flying robots carry deadly weapons. And the US is far from the only military power recruiting robots. Foreign Policy states that about 70 countries now have at least some capability. This list includes both China, which has at least 25 types in development, and Iran.

Fact and fiction

In The Naked Sun, roboticist Jonathan Leebig has figured out a way to make robots commit murder and even fight wars. In Asimov’s fictional universe, this is an unthinkable atrocity, as robots cannot knowingly disobey the three laws of robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

In the real world, robots killing humans have become almost commonplace. According to Foreign Policy, there have been some 300 drone strikes outside the battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya over the past decade. All in all, these attacks have killed more than 2,000 suspected militants and an unknown number of civilians. And both in the air and on the battlefields of this Earth, robots routinely participate in the ugly wars of humans. But while the killings and the wars are all to real, the laws remain fictional.

Of machines and men

The SWORDS robot system allows Soldiers to fire small arms weapons by remote control.Photo: Sgt. Lorie Jewell, US Army

Most scientists seem to agree that the robots of today do not need their own laws. Most of them are just not smart enough. Most military robots, for instance, need a human being pulling the «trigger» before they actually fire their weapons. However, that doesn’t mean that robots will not need laws in the future. And that future might be nearer than we like to believe. For example, it is already possible to build and program robots fully capable of both locating a presumed enemy, aiming their weapons and firing, without any man in the loop. Also, while most contemporary robots don’t need their own laws, that certainly doesn’t mean that we humans don’t need laws governing which robots we build, who controls them and how we use them.

Call me naive, but I really like Asimov’s three laws. And I really don’t like the notion of autonomous machines making decisions of life and death, firing their weapons on living, breathing human beings. In The Naked Sun, the murdering robots and their human masters cause a great deal of trouble. As do the armed and dangerous military robots of the world.

Of course, I do realize that with the world’s military powers spending millions and millions of dollars and yuans on the development of more and more sophisticated robots, a law that renders these robots all but useless to their sponsors seems rather unlikely to pass. However, that doesn’t mean that we should let armed robots, military commanders, or Iranian and US presidents operate in a legal vacuum. Luckily, there seems to be a dawning recognition of this fact among scientists, and even within the ranks of the military. The military needs soldiers – be they human or robotic – who follow not only orders but also stringent sets of rules. A report prepared for the US Deparment of Navy’s Office of Naval Research concludes that autonomous military robots should be programmed with the Laws of War and mission specific rules of engagement.

The International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC) goes one step further, and calls upon the international community to start a discussion about an arms control regime to reduce the threat posed by these systems. ICRAC propose that this discussion should consider the prohibition of the development and use of armed autonomous unmanned systems, limitations on the range and weapons carried by “man in the loop” unmanned systems, a ban on arming unmanned systems with nuclear weapons and the prohibition of the development and use of robot space weapons.

While I am not totally convinced that we need all the bans and prohibitions ICRAC proposes, I totally agree that we – as a species and an international community – need to have this discussion, and we need to have it now. With the rapid development of military robots, it would be plain stupid to sit around and do nothing. Become an ICRAC supporter today. And read Asimov. Seriously. Just do it!

¹It is hard to estimate exactly how many armed military robots there are in the world today, as the numbers and types of armed drones are kept secret by many governments and military commanders. However, the US military alone probably has at least 300 armed drones of various types. Both Israel, the UK, Turkey, Australia and India also have drones capable of carrying arms. The numbers of Iranian and Chinese armed drones are not known, but both nations are thought to either have operational combat drones or to be in the process of developing them. Also, at least the US, Israel and South-Korea have experimented with ground and/or sea based robots capable of armed attack, but these robots are not involved in armed conflict today, at least not as far as I know.

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