Saturday, April 04, 2009

Ethics, morality, and legality of robotic wars

Here is an excellent TED talk by P.W. Singer, author of Wired for War. I'm just fascinated and frightened by all of this. I like Singer's analogy of these robots of war with the atomic bomb. This is the time to think about the moral and ethical issues in the development of these robotic weapons. There needs to be a broader discussion of the implications of robots in war. We also seriously need to update laws regarding the conduct of war. This is not a hypothetical issue. There are increasing number of drone attacks in Pakistan (there was one this morning that killed 13 people). Yes, the Pakistan government has given a silent nod to these (do they have a choice?), but who gets the blame for civilian casualties which accompany almost every strike? In this kind of war, who gets to decide who is a civilian and who is a combatant? All of these questions are aside from assessing the long-term effectiveness of this remote-control war.

The visuals associated with Singer's talk are fascinating. It truly gives an idea of the diversity of weapons being employed. With the level of defense budget here in the US, I shudder to think of the next generation of weapons - the ones that we can't even imagine right now. The last few minutes of the talk touch upon the moral issues - especially on what to do when (not "if") we get to autonomous war machines. He does not provide any answers but others have to address these questions. Then of course, we also have to worry about video-game expert kids flying drones from Nevada that kill people thousands of miles away. Perhaps a perfect time to turn Ender's Game into a movie (related posts: Push-button executions from the skies, and Robots of war). Here is the video (its about 16 minutes long).


Don said...

I watched this first, before I took the plunge into the videos from the McGill conference. Lots of interesting questions, but I have one big worry: I don't want discussions over the ethics of robots in war as a distraction of discussing the ethics of war. I know the point was that the ethics of technology in war is an important and largely unaddressed issue within the ethics of war, but I don't want people worrying about robots killing at the expense of worrying about people killing.

I don't know how to anticipate how one will affect the other-- Singer has some speculation on this, as in his discussion of the depersonalization or disconnection of both the warrior and adversary. But it seems to me that War has been getting less personal for its entire history. Trench warfare and chemical warfare in world war one, air warfare in world war two, the atomic bomb, .50 caliber sniper rifles, tomahawk missiles, etc. are all technological progressions in war that have led to depersonalization and disconnection. "All Quiet on the Western Front" was written not about the last few major wars, but the one at the very beginning of the 20th century.

Maybe that should be the first issue to impact speculation on the effect of robotic warfare-- that it doesn't just change the context of war, but that the context of war has already changed. The situations in which drones are used are different from WWII, Vietnam, or even the first Gulf War. Increasing perceptions of disconnect and depersonalization has been happening throughout the last century(for another literary instantiation of this, I would recommend Anthony Swafford's "Jarhead"). Maybe robotic warfare isn't as revolutionary is its technological trappings would have us believe, and we should take the opportunity of the shock caused by the novelty of robotic weapons to re-open discussion about the ethics of war, period.

Don said...

I guess I found this topic interesting, because there's now a lot more about it over on my blog. I figured you might not want me to squeeze all of it into the comments section here, but consider the above comment a trailer for the post.

Salman Hameed said...

I agree about a discussion of ethics of war in itself. However, I would argue the opposite: By conflating the two (ethics of war - and the ethics of the conduct of war with robots) we may end up ignoring the issues regarding (at least) the decision-making robots in war. Unfortunately, wars will continue - but these machines (cylons? :) ) are bringing a new set of problems.

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