Killer Robots and the Morality of Conventional Warfare (Pitch)

By: Pritam Hooda

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Autonomous weaponry refers a piece of military technology that, once activated, can engage its targets without any human input. So imagine a turret that works completely independently, or for a more real-life example: the Israeli Army’s Harpy drone, which works independently to find and eliminate targets. This technology has become a subject of a numerous debates because of the ramifications of removing human input, and whether or not it’s ethical to do so.

Numerous founders of robotics and artificial intelligence companies are calling for a United Nations ban on the development of this technology. They make the argument that these will become weapons of mass terror, removing of the human decision-making process and our centralized chains-of-commands, will quicken the pace of combat to an incomprehensible point, and in the “hands of despots dictators, could be disastrous for innocent populations.” Think Genocide and other war crimes.

Michael Robillard, a postdoctoral researcher at Oxford University and a veteran of the Iraq War, says that the debate maybe building on assumptions; focusing on the technology and not on the human responsibility. After all, a human has to design the weapon, and a human has to activate it. Discussing the moral implications of the technology alone does not make sense since “the deep moral issues raised by autonomous weapons are the very same ones raised by conventional warfare.

It is difficult to say whether or not Robillard is right, however, at this point, there is no denying that the technology will be influential. It already is the case of the IAI Harpy, having already been utilized by the militaries of countries like China, India, and Israel. And completion will lead to more development in the field. The way I see it, the question is two parted – one, should the technology be banned on moral grounds; and second, if autonomous weapons are just another tool in conventional warfare, then what does that say about the morality of conventional warfare.