You can't appeal to robots for mercy or empathy - or punish them afterwards

Two interesting articles examining the development and implementation of combat robots of various sorts were published this month. In “The age of the killer robot is no longer a sci-fi fantasy” (Independent), Johann Hari considers the growing army of 12,000 robots used by the USA in some 33,000 military operations per year and offers the following conclusion:

Imagine if the beaches at Dover and the skies over Westminster were filled with robots controlled from Torah Borah, or Beijing, and could shoot us at any time. Some would scuttle away – and many would be determined to kill “their” people in revenge. The Lebanese editor Rami Khouri says that when Lebanon was bombarded by largely unmanned Israeli drones in 2006, it only “enhanced the spirit of defiance” and made more people back Hezbollah.

Is this a rational way to harness our genius for science and spend tens of billions of pounds? The scientists who were essential to developing the nuclear bomb – including Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, and Andrei Sakharov – turned on their own creations in horror and begged for them to be outlawed. Some distinguished robotics scientists, like Illah Nourbakhsh, are getting in early, and saying the development of autonomous military robots should be outlawed now.

There are some technologies that are so abhorrent to human beings that we forbid them outright. We have banned war-lasers that permanently blind people along with poison gas. The conveyor belt dragging us ever closer to a world of robot wars can be stopped – if we choose to.

The second article, “Israeli Robots Remake Battlefield” by Charles Levinson (Wall Street Journal), can only dampen Hari’s optimism. Levinson argues that the growing Israeli army of “robotic fighting machines” offers a “window onto the potential future of warfare”, with “over 40 countries now said to have military-robotics programs”.

‘Highlights’ from the article, for want of a better term, include:

  • Among the recently deployed technologies that set Israel ahead of the curve is the Guardium unmanned ground vehicle, which now drives itself along the Gaza and Lebanese borders. The Guardium was deployed to patrol for infiltrators in the wake of the abduction of soldiers doing the same job in 2006. The Guardium, developed by G-nius Ltd., is essentially an armored off-road golf cart with a suite of optical sensors and surveillance gear. It was put into the field for the first time 10 months ago.
  • In the Gaza conflict in January 2009, Israel unveiled remote-controlled bulldozers.
  • Within the next year, Israeli engineers expect to deploy the voice-commanded, six-wheeled Rex robot, capable of carrying 550 pounds of gear alongside advancing infantry.
  • After bomb-laden fishing boats tried to take out an Israeli Navy frigate off the coast off Gaza in 2002, Rafael designed the Protector SV, an unmanned, heavily armed speedboat that today makes up a growing part of the Israeli naval fleet. The Singapore Navy has also purchased the boat and is using it in patrols in the Persian Gulf.
  • Unlike the U.S. and other militaries, where UAVs are flown by certified, costly-to-train fighter pilots, Israeli defense companies have recently built their UAVs to allow an average 18-year-old recruit with just a few months’ training to pilot them.
  • “The Israelis do it differently, not because they’re more clever than we are, but because they live in a tough neighborhood and need to respond fast to operational issues,” says Thomas Tate, a former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who now oversees defence cooperation between the U.S. and Israel.
  • in 2009 the U.S. Air Force trained more “pilots” for unmanned aircraft than for manned fighters and bombers for the first time.
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