The US Department of Defense (DoD) has issued
a statement claiming that humans will always make the final decision on
whether armed robots can shoot. This comes as plans emerge for advanced
targeting systems to help human gunners aim.
While public fears may have been fanned by the term ‘killer robots’
banded about by many news outlets, the concept is essentially nothing new. This
is because when we say ‘robot’, what we really mean is a technology with some
form of ‘autonomous’ element that allows it to perform a task without the need
for direct human intervention.
The thing is, these technologies have existed for a very
long time. Way back during the Second World War, the proximity fuze was
developed to explode artillery shells at a pre-determined distance from their
target. This made the shells far more effective than they would have otherwise
been by augmenting human decision making, and in some cases, taking the human
out of the loop completely.
The question then, is not so much one of whether we should use
autonomous weapon systems in battle, for we already use them, and they take
many forms. Rather, we should focus on how
we use them, why we use them, and what
form (if any) human intervention should take.
Just over a year ago now, I published the results of a small survey I shared with my followers on Facebook. The idea was to test a few theories I had been working on around ethics and the relative value we assign different forms of life. In this case, I was specifically interested in how we think about animal life, and how we respond to different species when it comes to decisions around life and death.
Even though my survey was relatively small, the results were quite remarkable, and show a clear trend in responses that favour saving larger and more ‘noble’ animals, over smaller, ‘less intelligent’ animals that may be perceived to be in some way less worthy. While a utilitarian perspective should in theory show that the save/kill decisions made by respondents should be weighted equally across five different species of farmyard animal (each life is, after all, of equal ‘value’), respondents very clearly favoured saving a single horse over a single chicken. This trend continued when participants were asked to choose between saving a single horse or five chickens, with many respondents still opting to save the horse, while many respondents would much prefer to kill five chickens, instead of a single horse.