Drone-Ethics Briefing: What a Leading Robot Expert Told the CIA

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Last month, philosopher Patrick Lin delivered this briefing about the ethics of drones at an event hosted by In-Q-Tel, the CIA's venture-capital arm. It's a thorough and unnerving survey of what it might mean for the intelligence service to deploy different kinds of robots. 

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Robots are replacing humans on the battlefield--but could they also be used to interrogate and torture suspects? This would avoid a serious ethical conflict between physicians' duty to do no harm, or nonmaleficence, and their questionable role in monitoring vital signs and health of the interrogated. A robot, on the other hand, wouldn't be bound by the Hippocratic oath, though its very existence creates new dilemmas of its own.

The ethics of military robots is quickly marching ahead, judging by news coverage and academic research. Yet there's little discussion about robots in the service of national intelligence and espionage, which are omnipresent activities in the background. This is surprising, because most military robots are used for surveillance and reconnaissance, and their most controversial uses are traced back to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in targeted strikes against suspected terrorists. Just this month, a CIA drone --a RQ-170 Sentinel--crash-landed intact into the hands of the Iranians, exposing the secret US spy program in the volatile region.

The US intelligence community, to be sure, is very much interested in robot ethics. At the least, they don't want to be ambushed by public criticism or worse, since that could derail programs, waste resources, and erode international support. Many in government and policy also have a genuine concern about "doing the right thing" and the impact of war technologies on society. To those ends, In-Q-Tel--the CIA's technology venture-capital arm (the "Q" is a nod to the technology-gadget genius in the James Bond spy movies)--had invited me to give a briefing to the intelligence community on ethical surprises in their line of work, beyond familiar concerns over possible privacy violations and illegal assassinations. This article is based on that briefing, and while I refer mainly to the US intelligence community, this discussion could apply just as well to intelligence programs abroad.

BACKGROUND

Robotics is a game-changer in national security. We now find military robots in just about every environment: land, sea, air, and even outer space. They have a full range of form-factors from tiny robots that look like insects to aerial drones with wingspans greater than a Boeing 737 airliner. Some are fixed onto battleships, while others patrol borders in Israel and South Korea; these have fully-auto modes and can make their own targeting and attack decisions. There's interesting work going on now with micro robots, swarm robots, humanoids, chemical bots, and biological-machine integrations. As you'd expect, military robots have fierce names like: TALON SWORDS, Crusher, BEAR, Big Dog, Predator, Reaper, Harpy, Raven, Global Hawk, Vulture, Switchblade, and so on. But not all are weapons--for instance, BEAR is designed to retrieve wounded soldiers on an active battlefield.

The usual reason why we'd want robots in the service of national security and intelligence is that they can do jobs known as the 3 "D"s: Dull jobs, such as extended reconnaissance or patrol beyond limits of human endurance, and standing guard over perimeters; dirty jobs, such as work with hazardous materials and after nuclear or biochemical attacks, and in environments unsuitable for humans, such as underwater and outer space; and dangerous jobs, such as tunneling in terrorist caves, or controlling hostile crowds, or clearing improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Robots don't act with malice or hatred or other emotions that can lead to war crimes and other abuses, such as rape.

But there's a new, fourth "D" that's worth considering, and that's the ability to act with dispassion. (This is motivated by Prof. Ronald Arkin's work at Georgia Tech, though others remain skeptical, such as Prof. Noel Sharkey at University of Sheffield in the UK.) Robots wouldn't act with malice or hatred or other emotions that may lead to war crimes and other abuses, such as rape. They're unaffected by emotion and adrenaline and hunger. They're immune to sleep deprivation, low morale, fatigue, etc. that would cloud our judgment. They can see through the "fog of war", to reduce unlawful and accidental killings. And they can be objective, unblinking observers to ensure ethical conduct in wartime. So robots can do many of our jobs better than we can, and maybe even act more ethically, at least in the high-stress environment of war.


SCENARIOS

With that background, let's look at some current and future scenarios. These go beyond obvious intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), strike, and sentry applications, as most robots are being used for today. I'll limit these scenarios to a time horizon of about 10-15 years from now.

Military surveillance applications are well known, but there are also important civilian applications, such as robots that patrol playgrounds for pedophiles (for instance, in South Korea) and major sporting events for suspicious activity (such as the 2006 World Cup in Seoul and 2008 Beijing Olympics). Current and future biometric capabilities may enable robots to detect faces, drugs, and weapons at a distance and underneath clothing. In the future, robot swarms and "smart dust" (sometimes called nanosensors) may be used in this role.

Robots can be used for alerting purposes, such as a humanoid police robot in China that gives out information, and a Russian police robot that recites laws and issues warnings. So there's potential for educational or communication roles and on-the-spot community reporting, as related to intelligence gathering.

In delivery applications, SWAT police teams already use robots to interact with hostage-takers and in other dangerous situations. So robots could be used to deliver other items or plant surveillance devices in inaccessible places. Likewise, they can be used for extractions too. As mentioned earlier, the BEAR robot can retrieve wounded soldiers from the battlefield, as well as handle hazardous or heavy materials. In the future, an autonomous car or helicopter might be deployed to extract or transport suspects and assets, to limit US personnel inside hostile or foreign borders.

In detention applications, robots could also be used to not just guard buildings but also people. Some advantages here would be the elimination of prison abuses like we saw at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. This speaks to the dispassionate way robots can operate. Relatedly--and I'm not advocating any of these scenarios, just speculating on possible uses--robots can solve the dilemma of using physicians in interrogations and torture. These activities conflict with their duty to care and the Hippocratic oath to do no harm. Robots can monitor vital signs of interrogated suspects, as well as a human doctor can. They could also administer injections and even inflict pain in a more controlled way, free from malice and prejudices that might take things too far (or much further than already).

And robots could act as Trojan horses, or gifts with a hidden surprise. I'll talk more about these scenarios and others as we discuss possible ethical surprises next.

ETHICAL AND POLICY SURPRISES

  1. Limitations

While robots can be seen as replacements for humans, in most situations, humans will still be in the loop, or at least on the loop--either in significant control of the robot, or able to veto a robot's course of action. And robots will likely be interacting with humans. This points to a possible weak link in applications: the human factor.

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Patrick Lin is the director of the Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo; a visiting associate professor at Stanford's School of Engineering; and an affiliate scholar at Stanford Law School. He is the lead editor of Robot Ethics and the co-author of What Is Nanotechnology and Why Does It Matter? and Enhanced Warfighters: Risk, Ethics, and Policy.

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