The Nanosecond Decision to Kill: drones

These are excerpts from the report of the UN Special Rapporteur Christof Heyns,  Apr. 9, 2013

What are Lethal Autonomous Robotics?

Robots are often described as machines that are built upon the sense-think-act paradigm: they have sensors that give them a degree of situational awareness; processors or artificial intelligence that “decides” how to respond to a given stimulus; and effectors that carry out those “decisions”. …   Under the currently envisaged scenario, humans will at least remain part of what may be called the “wider loop”: they will programme the ultimate goals into the robotic systems and decide to activate and, if necessary, deactivate them, while autonomous weapons will translate those goals into tasks and execute them without requiring further human intervention. Supervised autonomy means that there is a “human on the loop” (as opposed to “in” or “out”), who monitors and can override the robot‟s decisions. However, the power to override may in reality be limited because the decision-making processes of robots are often measured in nanoseconds and the informational basis of those decisions may not be practically accessible to the supervisor. In such circumstances humans are de facto out of the loop and the machines thus effectively constitute LARs.

Examples of  Lethal Autonomous Robotics

  • The US Phalanx system for Aegis-class cruisers automatically detects, tracks and engages anti-air warfare threats such as anti-ship missiles and aircraft.
  • The US Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar (C-RAM) system can automatically destroy incoming artillery, rockets and mortar rounds.
  • Israel‟s Harpy is a “Fire-and-Forget” autonomous weapon system designed to detect, attack and destroy radar emitters.
  • The United Kingdom Taranis jet-propelled combat drone prototype can autonomously search, identify and locate enemies but can only engage with a target when authorized by mission command. It can also defend itself against enemy aircraft.
  • The Northrop Grumman X-47B is a fighter-size drone prototype commissioned by the US Navy to demonstrate autonomous launch and landing capability on aircraft carriers and navigate autonomously.
  • The Samsung Techwin surveillance and security guard robots, deployed in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, detect targets through infrared sensors. They are currently operated by humans but have an “automatic mode”.

Advantages of Lethal Autonomous Robotics

LARs will not be susceptible to some of the human shortcomings that may undermine the protection of life. Typically they would not act out of revenge, panic, anger, spite, prejudice or fear. Moreover, unless specifically programmed to do so, robots would not cause intentional suffering on civilian populations, for example through torture. Robots also do not rape.

Disadvantages of Lethal Autonomous Robotics

Yet robots have limitations in other respects as compared to humans. Armed conflict and IHL often require human judgement, common sense, appreciation of the larger picture, understanding of the intentions behind people‟s actions, and understanding of values and anticipation of the direction in which events are unfolding. Decisions over life and death in armed conflict may require compassion and intuition. Humans – while they are fallible – at least might possess these qualities, whereas robots definitely do not.

Full Report PDF

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