The harop, a kamikaze drone, bolts from its launcher like a horse out of the gates. But it is not built for speed, nor for a jockey. Instead it just loiters, unsupervised, too high for those on the battlefield below to hear the thin old-fashioned whine of its propeller, waiting for its chance.
Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) has been selling the Harop for more than a decade. A number of countries have bought the drone, including India and Germany. …In 2017, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (sipri), a think-tank, the Harop was one of 49 deployed systems which could detect possible targets and attack them without human intervention. It is thus very much the sort of thing which disturbs the coalition of 89 non-governmental organisations (ngos) in 50 countries that has come together under the banner of the “Campaign to Stop Killer Robots”.
The Phalanx guns used by the navies of America and its allies. Once switched on, the Phalanx will fire on anything it sees heading towards the ship it is mounted on. And in the case of a ship at sea that knows itself to be under attack by missiles too fast for any human trigger finger, that seems fair enough. Similar arguments can be made for the robot sentry guns in the demilitarised zone (dmz) between North and South Korea.
Autonomous vehicles do not have to become autonomous weapons, even when capable of deadly force. The Reaper drones with which America assassinates enemies are under firm human control when it comes to acts of violence, even though they can fly autonomously…. One of the advantages that MDBA, a European missile-maker, boasts for its air-to-ground Brimstones is that they can “self-sort” based on firing order. If different planes launch volleys of Brimstones into the same “kill box”, where they are free to do their worst, the missiles will keep tabs on each other to reduce the chance that two strike the same target.
Cost is also a factor in armies where trained personnel are pricey. “The thing about robots is that they don’t have pensions,”…If keeping a human in the loop was merely a matter of spending more, it might be deemed worthwhile regardless. But human control creates vulnerabilities. It means that you must pump a lot of encrypted data back and forth. What if the necessary data links are attacked physically—for example with anti-satellite weapons—jammed electronically or subverted through cyberwarfare? Future wars are likely to be fought in what America’s armed forces call “contested electromagnetic environments”. The Royal Air Force is confident that encrypted data links would survive such environments. But air forces have an interest in making sure there are still jobs for pilots; this may leave them prey to unconscious bias.
The vulnerability of communication links to interference is an argument for greater autonomy. But autonomous systems can be interfered with, too. The sensors for weapons like Brimstone need to be a lot more fly than those required by, say, self-driving cars, not just because battlefields are chaotic, but also because the other side will be trying to disorient them. Just as some activists use asymmetric make-up to try to confuse face-recognition systems, so military targets will try to distort the signatures which autonomous weapons seek to discern. Paul Scharre, author of “Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War”, warns that the neural networks used in machine learning are intrinsically vulnerable to spoofing.
The 2017 UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons has put together a group of governmental experts to study the finer points of autonomy. As well as trying to develop a common understanding of what weapons should be considered fully autonomous, it is considering both a blanket ban and other options for dealing with the humanitarian and security challenges that they create. Most states involved in the convention’s discussions agree on the importance of human control. But they differ on what this actually means. In a paper for Article 36, an advocacy group named after a provision of the Geneva conventions that calls for legal reviews on new methods of warfare, Heather Roff and Richard Moyes argue that “a human simply pressing a ‘fire’ button in response to indications from a computer, without cognitive clarity or awareness” is not really in control. “Meaningful control”, they say, requires an understanding of the context in which the weapon is being used as well as capacity for timely and reasoned intervention. It also requires accountability…
The two dozen states that want a legally binding ban on fully autonomous weapons are mostly military minnows like Djibouti and Peru, but some members, such as Austria, have diplomatic sway. None of them has the sort of arms industry that stands to profit from autonomous weapons. They ground their argument in part on International Humanitarian Law (IHL), a corpus built around the rules of war laid down in the Hague and Geneva conventions. This demands that armies distinguish between combatants and civilians, refrain from attacks where the risk to civilians outweighs the military advantage, use no more force than is proportional to the objective and avoid unnecessary suffering…Beyond the core group advocating a ban there is a range of opinions. China has indicated that it supports a ban in principle; but on use, not development. France and Germany oppose a ban, for now; but they want states to agree a code of conduct with wriggle room “for national interpretations”. India is reserving its position. It is eager to avoid a repeat of nuclear history, in which technological have-nots were locked out of game-changing weaponry by a discriminatory treaty.
At the far end of the spectrum a group of states, including America, Britain and Russia, explicitly opposes the ban. These countries insist that existing international law provides a sufficient check on all future systems….States are likely to sacrifice human control for self-preservation, says General Barrons. “You can send your children to fight this war and do terrible things, or you can send machines and hang on to your children.” Other people’s children are other people’s concern.
Excerpts from Briefing Autonomous Weapons: Trying to Restrain the Robots, Economist, Jan. 19, 2019, at 22