Get Ready: The Autonomous Drones Are Coming

And they're not very different from piloted drones. Why smart policy depends on grasping that.

2009_terminator_salvation_001-615.jpgWarner Bros.

What's more troubling than lethal drones? Lethal drones that can think for themselves.

Such machines are worth worrying about not because of the prospect we'll suffer some Terminator-style robot uprising, but because in the next few decades we'll need to make some extremely difficult choices about when it's okay for a computer to end a human life. The ongoing debate over whether pilot-controlled drones are a legitimate instrument of violence is contentious enough already without the added problem of artificial intelligence and remote accountability.

Nothing is inevitable, but over the next few decades, it'll be very hard to avoid the moment when autonomous drones make their way to the battlefield. So long as there exists a military incentive to limit risk and enhance lethality -- and so long as commanders control procurement -- the temptation to move toward autonomous drones will be irresistible. On logistical grounds alone, robots that can swarm and operate semi-independently of humans represent huge cost savings -- aside from the occasional firmware patch and other maintenance, robots don't need food, health-care, or retirement benefits. A sophisticated drone programmed to make the same choices as its human counterpart could also eliminate errors in accuracy brought on by weather, fear, and other distractions.

The idea that a machine could exhibit the moral and emotional complexity of a human seems laughable -- at least right now. Our relationship to computers as tools has conditioned us to view remote-piloted drones and fully autonomous drones as two distinct phenomena. But perhaps there's really less of a divide there than we think. What if this is simply the constructed product of our biases talking? In fact, both technically and ethically, fully autonomous drones may not be that different from the ones we use now.

* * *

Suppose that a thinking robot follows all the appropriate laws of war. Human Rights Watch's Tom Malinowski describes the problem this way:

The robot, in other words, might reach the same "legal" conclusion in such a scenario as a JAG officer. But let's remember: proportionality decisions require weighing the relative value of a human life. Would we be comfortable letting robots do that? How would we feel if someone we loved were killed in a military strike, and we were informed that a computer, rather than a person, decided that their loss was proportionate to the value of a military target?

Implicit in Malinowski's last question there is a premise: a family whose son was killed by an unsupervised drone ought to be more upset than if they'd found out he'd been killed by another human being.

On its face, this makes perfect sense. It wouldn't be fair any other way; it would've been a cheap shot, otherwise. Yet the history of combat is literally the tale of one cheap shot after another. From the bow to the longbow, the rifle to the sniper rifle, the hot-air balloon to the jet fighter, military tacticians have been obsessed with increasing the range of their weaponry. Killing more of the enemy from afar weakens his resolve while preserving your own resources.

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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