A group that has long focused its lobbying efforts on stopping the proliferation of land mines is turning its attention to a surprising new target: war robots. In the first known instance of a non-government group protesting against war robot technology, the London-based charity, Landmine Action, hopes to ban autonomous killing robots in all 150 countries currently bound by the current land mine treaty.
While all machine gun-packing robots currently are human-controlled, the U.S. Department of Defense has expressed interest in deploying autonomous robot warriors onto the battlefield in the near future. Last month DailyTech reported that Noel Sharkey, a robot researcher at Sheffield University, expressed controversial concerns about the ethics of autonomous war robots. He stated that such robots might be capable of "war crimes".
Sharkey's speech inspired Landmine Action to take action against the war robots. Richard Moyes, Landmine Action's director of policy and research, says the fight against autonomous killers is not a policy switch. He says the organization has already fought cluster bombs, which use infrared sensors and artificial intelligence to decide when to detonate. Landmine Action believes that taking the targeting decision out of human hands, and putting it in a machine's is a deadly one.
Moyes explains, "That decision to detonate is still in the hands of an electronic sensor rather than a person. Our concern is that humans, not sensors, should make targeting decisions. So similarly, we don't want to move towards robots that make decisions about combatants and noncombatants."
The organization hopes to sway the International Committee of the Red Cross and Amnesty International, two leading organizations in war ethics lobbying. Landmine Action is spurred on by Sharkey's comments, including his statement that, "We should not use autonomous armed robots unless they can discriminate between combatants and noncombatants. And that will be never."
Many in the robotics community express agreement with Sharkey's sentiment. Peter Kahn, researcher on social robots from the University of Washington, states that he believe Sharkey to be correct and hopes that robotics researchers will stop taking government money to design war robots. He argued to his colleagues at a conference on Human-Robot Interaction in Amsterdam, "We can say no. And if enough of us say it we can ensure robots are used for peaceful purposes."
However, most in the robotics community feel this is impossible as most robotics research is funded by the Defense Department. Says one anonymous U.S. researcher at the conference, "If I don't work for the DoD, I don't work."
Some robotics researchers disagree with Sharkey and feel that robots could make the perfect warrior. Ronald Arkin, a robot researcher at Georgia Tech, says that robots could make even more ethical soldiers than humans. Arkin is working with Department of Defense to program ethics into the next generation of battle robots, including the Geneva Convention rules. He says that robots will react more ethically as they have no desire for self-preservation, no emotions, and no fear of disobeying their commanders' orders in case of bad orders.
Many, however, remain skeptical of the wisdom of deploying increasingly intelligent robots onto warzones across the world. They point to the many science fiction scenarios, which depict humanity at war with killer robots of their own creation. While this may seem farfetched, the issue of war robots is becoming a serious one that the world's brightest minds are trying to grapple with.
© 2008 DailyTech