The Military Wants to Teach Robots Right From Wrong

“One of the arguments for [moral] robots is that they may be even better than humans in picking a moral course of action because they may consider more courses of action,” he said.

Ronald Arkin, an AI expert from Georgia Tech and author of the book Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots,  is a proponent of giving machines a moral compass. “It is not my belief that an unmanned system will be able to be perfectly ethical in the battlefield, but I am convinced that they can perform more ethically than human soldiers are capable of,” Arkin wrote in a 2007 research paper (PDF). Part of the reason for that, he said, is that robots are capable of following rules of engagement to the letter, whereas humans are more inconsistent.

AI robotics expert Noel Sharkey is a detractor. He’s beenhighly critical of armed drones in general. and has arguedthat autonomous weapons systems cannot be trusted to conform to  international law.

“I do not think that they will end up with a moral or ethical robot,” Sharkey told Defense One. “For that we need to have moral agency. For that we need to understand others and know what it means to suffer. The robot may be installed with some rules of ethics but it won’t really care. It will follow a human designer’s idea of ethics.”

“The simple example that has been given to the press about scheduling help for wounded soldiers is a good one. My concern would be if [the military] were to extend a system like this for lethal autonomous weapons - weapons where the decision to kill is delegated to a machine; that would be deeply troubling,” he said.

This week, Sharkey and Arkin are debating the issue of whether or not morality can be built into AI systems before theU.N. where they may find an audience very sympathetic to the idea that a moratorium should be placed on the further development of autonomous armed robots.

Christof Heyns, U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, is calling for a moratorium. “There is reason to believe that states will, inter alia, seek to use lethal autonomous robotics for targeted killing,” Heyns said in an April 2013 report to the U.N.

The Defense Department’s policy directive on lethal autonomy offers little reassurance here since the department can change it without congressional approval, at the discretion of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and two undersecretaries of Defense. University of Denver scholar Heather Roff, in an op-ed for the Huffington Post, calls that a “disconcerting” lack of oversight and notes that “fielding of autonomous weapons then does not even raise to the level of the Secretary of Defense, let alone the president.”

If researchers can prove that robots can do moral math, even if in some limited form, they may be able to diffuse rising public anger and mistrust over armed unmanned vehicles. But it’s no small task.

“This is a significantly difficult problem and it’s not clear we have an answer to it,” said Wallach. “Robots both domestic and militarily are going to find themselves in situations where there are a number of courses of actions and they are going to need to bring some kinds of ethical routines to bear on determining the most ethical course of action. If we’re moving down this road of increasing autonomy in robotics, and that’s the same as Google cars as it is for military robots, we should begin now to do the research to how far can we get in ensuring the robot systems are safe and can make appropriate decisions in the context they operate.”

Presented by

Patrick Tucker is the technology editor of Defense One and the author of the book, The Naked Future: What Happens In a World That Anticipates Your Every Move.

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