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.
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).
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.