Robotic warfare and humanitarian aid

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CNET.com interviews P.W. Singer, author of “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.”

The interview describes recent developments in the use of robots and autonomous or remote vehicles in conflict environments.  One of the most interesting questions, from a humanitarian standpoint, was this one:

How will robot warfare change our international laws of war? If an autonomous robot mistakenly takes out 20 little girls playing soccer in the street and people are outraged, is the programmer going to get the blame? The manufacturer? The commander who sent in the robot fleet? 

Singer: That’s the essence of the problem of trying to apply a set of laws that are so old they qualify for Medicare to these kind of 21st-century dilemmas that come with this 21st-century technology. It’s also the kind of question that you might have once only asked at Comic-Con and now it’s a very real live question at the Pentagon.

I went around trying to get the answer to this sort of question meeting with people not only in the military but also in the International Committee of the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch. We’re at a loss as to how to answer that question right now. The robotics companies are only thinking in terms of product liability…and international law is simply overwhelmed or basically ignorant of this technology. There’s a great scene in the book where two senior leaders within Human Rights Watch get in an argument in front of me of which laws might be most useful in such a situation.

The quote, “that’s the essence of the problem of trying to apply a set of laws that are so old they qualify for Medicare to these kind of 21st-century dilemmas” could well apply to a range of issues faced by future humanitarian organisations.  And not just aid organisations, but any organisation grappling with the changing dimensions of technology, law, and ethics in a world of ever increasing change.

Of course these kinds of technologies don`t only have to be used for killing.  Imagine autonomous aerial drones equiped with devices to seek out, map and catalogue unexploded land mines and other ordinance.  Such a flying robot could not only map and identify the location of such hidden killers, but then communicate to other friendly robots to come and disarm or detonate them.  Or picture a world where Big Dog-like robots could carry aid and equipment to disaster torn areas that would be too difficult to navigate by truck?  There is then the familiar premise of the old Wim Wenders film, “The End of Violence“.

It all seems rather science fiction perhaps, and would require a shift in the values of production of deployment of such devices.  But then again it wasn’t too long ago when unmanned flying killing machines seemed a little bit science fiction as well.  As usual, these end up being cultural and political choices, not technological ones.

The full interview is here.

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