Killer robots are not science fiction – they have been part of military defence for a while
They are just one of the fears with developing technology, but such bots have been here for much longer than you think, writes Mike Ryder
Humans will always make the final decision on whether armed robots can shoot, according to a statement by the US Department of Defence. Their clarification comes amid fears about a new advanced targeting system, known as Atlas, that will use artificial intelligencein combat vehicles to target and execute threats. While the public may feel uneasy about so-called “killer robots”, the concept is nothing new – machine-gun wielding “Swords” robots were deployed in Iraq as early as 2007.
Our relationship with military robots goes back even further than that. This is because when people say “robot”, they can mean any technology with some form of autonomous element that allows it to perform a task without the need for direct human intervention.
These technologies have existed for a very long time. During the Second World War, the proximity fuse was developed to explode artillery shells at a predetermined distance from their target. This made the shells far more effective than they would otherwise have been by augmenting human decision making and, in some cases, taking the human out of the loop completely.
So the question is not so much whether we should use autonomous weapon systems in battle – 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.
The birth of cybernetics
My research explores the philosophy of human-machine relations, with a particular focus on military ethics, and the way we distinguish between humans and machines. During the Second World War, mathematician Norbert Wiener laid the groundwork of cybernetics – the study of the interface between humans, animals and machines – in his work on the control of anti-aircraft fire. By studying the deviations between an aircraft’s predicted motion, and its actual motion, Wiener and his colleague Julian Bigelow came up with the concept of the “feedback loop”, where deviations could be fed back into the system in order to correct further predictions.
Wiener’s theory therefore went far beyond mere augmentation, for cybernetic technology could be used to pre-empt human decisions – removing the fallible human from the loop, in order to make better, quicker decisions and make weapons systems more effective.
In the years since the Second World War, the computer has emerged to sit alongside cybernetic theory to form a central pillar of military thinking, from the laser-guided “smart bombs” of the Vietnam era to cruise missiles and Reaper drones.
It’s no longer enough to merely augment the human warrior as it was in the early days. The next phase is to remove the human completely – “maximising” military outcomes while minimising the political cost associated with the loss of allied lives. This has led to the widespread use of military drones by the US and its allies. While these missions are highly controversial, in political terms they have proved to be preferable by far to the public outcry caused by military deaths.