Who’s Responsible if a Military Robot Kills Civilians?

Wednesday, August 05, 2009
Harpy unmanned aircraft

Self-thinking military robots, not unlike the killing machines featured in the Terminator movies, are by no means the stuff of science fiction, warns Professor Noel Sharkey, an expert in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics at the University of Sheffield. “The next thing that’s coming, and this is what really scares me, are armed autonomous robots,” he recently told the media in London. “The robot will do the killing itself.”

The problem with such a development, Sharkey says, is that robots cannot handle two basic tenets of warfare: Discriminating friend from foe; and determining when enough-is-enough in attacking the enemy. Yet, political and military officials are pushing ahead with advances in unmanned weapons systems.
In an American military report, U.S. Air Force officials predict the deployment of fully autonomous attack planes in the near future. “Advances in AI will enable systems to make combat decisions and act within legal and policy constraints without necessarily requiring human input,” says the report, while adding that “authorizing a machine to make lethal combat decisions is contingent upon political and military leaders resolving legal and ethical questions.”
The Israelis already have a pilotless “fire-and-forget” aircraft (Harpy) that can locate enemy radar signals and automatically attack its source with air-to-surface missiles, all without any human assistance.
Even now, with the growing use of unmanned aircraft controlled by humans on the ground, robots cannot adequately discriminate civilians from enemy targets. Sharkey estimated that between January 2006 and April 2009, the U.S. carried out approximately 60 “drone” attacks in Pakistan, killing 14 al Qaeda members, but also causing 687 civilian fatalities.
-Noel Brinkerhoff
Call for Debate on Killer Robots (by Jason Palmer, BBC News)


Sharkey 14 years ago
You make a fair point Eric although the figures did not come from the enemy but the Pakistan authorities which I certainly do not count as enemy. Anyhow when I told the press these figures I was very careful to qualify them by saying that it was extremely difficult to get reliable estimates and I was unsure of the accuracy of these numbers. But you know that such qualifications are rarely reported. Having said that, I have been tracking the reports on civilian vs combatant hits for over two years and it all points to a disproportionate number of civilian deaths. A lot of these reports are from the US military themselves following DNA analysis of attack sites.
Eric Ivers 15 years ago
"Sharkey estimated" doesn't really carry much weight now, does it. I estimated that Sharkey is four feet and weighs 340 pounds. I have no evidence to back that up, but neither does Sharkey. Those "687 civilian fatalities" were reports from the enemy. Why in the world would Sharkey or anyone else believe them?

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