Autonomous arms race: gentlemen, start your robots

By John Keller

Posted by John Keller

Lots of people have felt queasy about monster robots ever since they saw that cinematic classic Forbidden Planet, made half a century ago with its mechanical star Robby the Robot. The I, Robot movie with Will Smith a few years ago didn't make these folks feel much better.

I admit that it can be fun to see creepy robots at the movies, but I think it's important to acknowledge a clear difference between monster movie robots and today's generation of unmanned vehicles.

Autonomous vehicles such as the U.S. MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles can do destructive things -- like finding and killing terrorists before they can kill coalition soldiers. It doesn't necessarily follow that since these machines can do destructive things, that they post unacceptable risks to humanity.

Someone should tell this to a university professor in Sheffield, England, named Noel Sharkey , who in a keynote address to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) is warning of the threat posed to humanity by new robot weapons being developed by powers worldwide.

A University of Sheffield news release, headlined Killer military robots pose latest threat to humanity , lays out Professor Sharkey's case, which essentially boils down to these points:

-- we are beginning to see the first steps towards an international robot arms race;
-- robots may become standard terrorist weapons to replace the suicide bomber;
-- the United States is giving priority to robots that will decide on where, when, and whom to kill;
-- robots are easy for terrorists to copy and manufacture;
-- robots have difficulty discriminating between combatants and innocents; and
-- it's urgent for the international community to assess the risks of robot weapons.

It's pretty easy to see where this line of reasoning is going: robots can do bad things, therefore we ought to consider banning them. I just don't follow the logic. It's the same argument as the one for banning guns, which basically says that guns kill; ban guns and nobody gets killed.

That argument obviously doesn't wash. Banning guns succeeds only in disarming law-abiding citizens, and leaving them at the mercy of criminals who don't particularly care if there's a law prohibiting them from having guns or not. The bad guys get guns no matter what.

It's the same thing with autonomous vehicles. Ban them, and only the criminal terrorists will have them. Law-abiding countries would be at a disadvantage.

Let's look at Professor Sharkey's line of reasoning point by point. Let's consider that we could be in the beginning of an international robot arms race. No way to prevent this, and so what if we are? No weapon has ever been invented that wasn't put to use. Trying to prevent the spread of robot technology would be like trying to prevent the spread of the automobile. People want 'em, they'll get 'em.

Second point: robots may become terrorist weapons to replace the suicide bomber. Let's remember that Muslim suicide bombers get 72 virgins in heaven if they succeed in blowing themselves up. I doubt if they'll want to share those virgins with robots.

Next point: the U.S. is giving priority to robots that will decide on where, when, and whom to kill. Little chance of this. The so-called doctrine of "man in the loop" is part of the fabric of military procedures. People make the kill decisions, not the robots. Besides, everyone these days is scared to death of lawsuits. No robot manufacturer or user would allow his machines to have sole control over life-and-death decisions.

How about the claim that robots have difficulty discriminating between combatants and innocents? See paragraph above.

Let's consider that robots are easy for terrorists to copy and manufacture. Okay, so are guns, knives, personal computers, and can openers. Look what the terrorists have done with improvised explosive devices . They're pretty good at it, but U.S. forces and their allies are dealing with this threat. Plus, anything the terrorists build, we can build better. Let the robot races begin!

Last point: it's urgent for the international community to assess the risks of robot weapons. Get the U.N. involved in autonomous vehicle policy? No, thanks. I spent 10 years as a reporter in Washington watching the federal government screw up nearly everything it touched. The U.N. is even worse.

With apologies to Professor Sharkey , I think we should tend to our robots, and let the other guys tend to theirs.

Easily post a comment below using your Linkedin, Twitter, Google or Facebook account.

Previous Blog Posts

Capital Hill budget deal could restore tens of billions of dollars to the Pentagon

Tue Dec 17 13:15:00 CST 2013

Hacker drone story a cautionary tale about the need for unmanned vehicle data security

Tue Dec 10 09:46:00 CST 2013

Lack of money for systems upgrades threatens to maintain wind-farm radar dead spots

Tue Dec 03 10:36:00 CST 2013

Engineering support contracts indicate the Pentagon is sinking into the Mothball Strategy

Tue Nov 26 06:57:00 CST 2013

The revenge of COTS: an ageing commercial technology base complicates military supply chain

Tue Nov 19 08:53:00 CST 2013

Navy's newest destroyers evolve to fill traditional battleship roles

Tue Nov 12 11:54:00 CST 2013

International suspicions of U.S. encryption technology putting defense companies in a bind

Tue Nov 05 11:24:00 CST 2013

Defense industry left guessing as Army struggles forward with an unclear mission

Tue Oct 29 09:45:00 CDT 2013

These are tough times for the combat vehicle and vetronics industries

Tue Oct 22 04:22:00 CDT 2013

Is the government shutdown a harbinger of more ominous things to come?

Tue Oct 15 11:21:00 CDT 2013

Government shutdown reduces military contracting, increasing pressure on U.S. defense industry

Mon Oct 07 12:17:00 CDT 2013

Potential good news: has U.S. defense spending finally bottomed-out?

Tue Oct 01 13:02:00 CDT 2013

Is robotics revolution the first glimpse of a fundamental change in human evolution?

Tue Sep 24 09:46:00 CDT 2013

Obsolescent parts: are we enhancing military readiness or creating a hollow force?

Tue Sep 17 15:46:00 CDT 2013

For the high-tech warfighter, the future of electronics-laden uniforms is here

Tue Sep 10 11:26:00 CDT 2013

New generation of embedded computing thermal management in development at GE

Tue Sep 03 09:44:00 CDT 2013

Trading bus stops for credit cards: how far embedded computing has come in three decades

Tue Aug 27 10:59:00 CDT 2013

Unmanned vehicle industry stands at the doorstep of a fundamental transformation

Tue Aug 20 11:09:00 CDT 2013

AUVSI 2013, one of the biggest unmanned vehicles shows in the world, opens this week in Washington

Tue Aug 13 05:35:00 CDT 2013

The Washington Post, under Jeff Bezos, could lead the way for media in the 21st Century

Tue Aug 06 09:47:00 CDT 2013

Are costs and vulnerabilities making military leaders nervous about satellite communications?

Tue Jul 30 11:07:00 CDT 2013

Unmanned aircraft carrier that travels beneath the waves may be in the Navy's future

Tue Jul 23 05:20:00 CDT 2013

Electronic warfare programs kick into high gear with a flurry of contract activity

Tue Jul 16 08:03:00 CDT 2013

How vulnerable are U.S. Navy vessels to advanced anti-ship cruise missiles?

Tue Jul 09 07:03:00 CDT 2013

First came VHSIC, then came MIMIC, and now comes ACE to push electronics technology

Tue Jul 02 09:16:00 CDT 2013

The Mil & Aero Bloggers

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

Ernesto Burden is the publisher of PennWell’s Aerospace & Defense Media Group, including Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence and Avionics Europe.  He’s a father of four, a runner, and an avid digital media enthusiast with a deep background in the intersection of media publishing, digital technology, and social media. He can be reached at ernestob@pennwell.com and on Twitter @aero_ernesto.

Courtney E. Howard, as executive editor, enjoys writing about all things electronics and avionics in PennWell’s burgeoning Aerospace and Defense Group, which encompasses Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence, the Avionics Europe conference, and much more. She’s also a self-proclaimed social-media maven, mil-aero nerd, and avid avionics geek. Connect with Courtney at Courtney@Pennwell.com, @coho on Twitter, and on LinkedIn.

Mil & Aero Magazine

January 2014
Volume 25, Issue 1
file

All Access Sponsors


Download Our Apps



iPhone

iPad

Android

Connect with Us



Newsletters

Military & Aerospace Electronics

Weekly newsletter covering technical content, breaking news and product information
SUBSCRIBE

Defense Executive

Monthly newsletter covering business news and strategic insights for executive managers
SUBSCRIBE

Embedded Computing Report

Monthly newsletter covering news on embedded computing in aerospace, defense and industrial-rugged applications
SUBSCRIBE

Unmanned Vehicles

Monthly newsletter covering news updates for designers of unmanned vehicles
SUBSCRIBE