This article gives an overview of U.S. military robots, and discusses a bit around the issues regarding their use in war:
As military robots gain more and more autonomy, the ethical questions involved will become even more complex. The U.S. military bends over backwards to figure out when it is appropriate to engage the enemy and how to limit civilian casualties. Autonomous robots could, in theory, follow the rules of engagement; they could be programmed with a list of criteria for determining appropriate targets and when shooting is permissible. The robot might be programmed to require human input if any civilians were detected. An example of such a list at work might go as follows: “Is the target a Soviet-made T-80 tank? Identification confirmed. Is the target located in an authorized free-fire zone? Location confirmed. Are there any friendly units within a 200-meter radius? No friendlies detected. Are there any civilians within a 200-meter radius? No civilians detected. Weapons release authorized. No human command authority required.”
Such an “ethical” killing machine, though, may not prove so simple in the reality of war. Even if a robot has software that follows all the various rules of engagement, and even if it were somehow absolutely free of software bugs and hardware failures (a big assumption), the very question of figuring out who an enemy is in the first place—that is, whether a target should even be considered for the list of screening questions—is extremely complicated in modern war. It essentially is a judgment call. It becomes further complicated as the enemy adapts, changes his conduct, and even hides among civilians. If an enemy is hiding behind a child, is it okay to shoot or not? Or what if an enemy is plotting an attack but has not yet carried it out? Politicians, pundits, and lawyers can fill pages arguing these points. It is unreasonable to expect robots to find them any easier.
The legal questions related to autonomous systems are also extremely sticky. In 2002, for example, an Air National Guard pilot in an F-16 saw flashing lights underneath him while flying over Afghanistan at twenty-three thousand feet and thought he was under fire from insurgents. Without getting required permission from his commanders, he dropped a 500-pound bomb on the lights. They instead turned out to be troops from Canada on a night training mission. Four were killed and eight wounded. In the hearings that followed, the pilot blamed the ubiquitous “fog of war” for his mistake. It didn’t matter and he was found guilty of dereliction of duty.
Change this scenario to an unmanned system and military lawyers aren’t sure what to do. Asks a Navy officer, “If these same Canadian forces had been attacked by an autonomous UCAV, determining who is accountable proves difficult. Would accountability lie with the civilian software programmers who wrote the faulty target identification software, the UCAV squadron’s Commanding Officer, or the Combatant Commander who authorized the operational use of the UCAV? Or are they collectively held responsible and accountable?”
The article was adapted from his book Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, published this year. I bought the book, but I have not read it yet.
Related is this paper on the ethics of autonomous military robots.
Posted on March 9, 2009 at 6:59 AM •
There are rumors of a prototype:
Even the highly advanced US forces hadn’t been generally thought to have developed a successful pulse-bomb yet, with most reports indicating that such a capability remains a few years off (as has been the case for decades). Furthermore, the pulse ordnance has usually been seen as large and heavy, in the same league as an aircraft bomb or cruise missile warhead — or in the case of an HPM raygun, of a weapons-pod or aircraft payload size.
Now, however, it appears that in fact the US military has already managed to get the coveted pulse-bomb tech down to grenade size. Colonel Buckhout apparently envisages the Army electronic warfare troopers of tomorrow lobbing a pulse grenade through the window of an enemy command post or similar, so knocking out all their comms.
Posted on February 26, 2009 at 6:48 AM •
Really interesting article on snipers:
It might be because there’s another side to snipers and sniping after all. In particular, even though a sniper will often be personally responsible for huge numbers of deaths — body counts in the hundreds for an individual shooter are far from unheard of — as a class snipers kill relatively few people compared to the effects they achieve. Furthermore, when a sniper kills someone, it is almost always a person they meant to kill, not just someone standing around in the wrong place and time. These are not things that most branches of the military can say.
But, for a well-trained military sniper at least, “collateral damage” — the accidental killing and injuring of bystanders and unintended targets — is almost nonexistent. Mistakes do occur, but compared to a platoon of regular soldiers armed with automatic weapons, rockets, grenades etc a sniper is delicacy itself. Compared to crew-served and vehicle weapons, artillery, tanks, air support or missile strikes, a sniper is not just surgically precise but almost magically so. Yet he (or sometimes she) is reviled as the next thing to a murderer, while the mainstream mass slaughter people are seen as relatively normal.
Consider the team who put a strike jet into the air: a couple of aircrew, technicians, armourers, planners, their supporting cooks and medics and security and supply people. Perhaps fifty or sixty people, then, who together send up a plane which can deliver a huge load of bombs at least twice a day. Almost every week in Afghanistan and Iraq right now, such bombs are dropped. The nature of heavy ordnance being what it is, these bombs kill and maim not just their targets (assuming there is a correctly-located target) but everyone else around. Civilian deaths in air strikes are becoming a massive issue for NATO and coalition troops in Afghanistan.
Those sixty people, in a busy week, could easily put hundreds of tons of munitions into a battlefield — an amount of destructive power approaching that of a small nuclear weapon. This kind of firepower can and will kill many times more people than sixty snipers could in the same time span – and many of the dead will typically be innocent bystanders, often including children and the elderly. Such things are happening, on longer timescales, as this article is written. Furthermore, all these bomber people — even the aircrew — run significantly less personal risk than snipers do.
But nobody thinks of a bomb armourer, or a “fighter” pilot”, or a base cook as a cowardly assassin. Their efforts are at least as deadly per capita, they run less personal risks, but they’re just doing their jobs. And let’s not forget everyone else: artillerymen, tank crews, machine gunners. Nobody particularly loathes them, or considers them cowardly assassins.
Posted on December 16, 2008 at 6:25 AM •
The frightening, but fascinatingly cool hovering robot – MKV (Multiple Kill Vehicle), is designed to shoot down enemy ballistic missiles.
A video released by the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) shows the MKV being tested at the National Hover Test Facility at Edwards Air Force Base, in California.
Inside a large steel cage, Lockheed’s MKV lifts off the ground, moves left and right, rapidly firing as flames shoot out of its bottom and sides. This description doesn’t do it any justice really, you have to see the video yourself.
During the test, the MKV is shown to lift off under its own propulsion, and remains stationary, using it’s on board retro-rockets. The potential of this drone is nothing short of science-fiction.
When watching the video, you can’t help but be reminded of post-apocalyptic killing machines, seen in such films as The Terminator and The Matrix.
Okay, people. Now is the time to start discussing the rules of war for autonomous robots. Now, when it’s still theoretical.
Posted on December 15, 2008 at 6:07 AM •
This looks like it was a very interesting conference.
And here’s a random paper on the subject.
Posted on December 2, 2008 at 7:53 AM •
I generally avoid commenting on election politics — that’s not what this blog is about — but this comment by Barack Obama is worth discussing:
[Q] I have been collecting accounts of your meeting with David Petraeus in Baghdad. And you had [inaudible] after he had made a really strong pitch [inaudible] for maximum flexibility. A lot of politicians at that moment would have said [inaudible] but from what I hear, you pushed back.
[BO] I did. I remember the conversation, pretty precisely. He made the case for maximum flexibility and I said you know what if I were in your shoes I would be making the exact same argument because your job right now is to succeed in Iraq on as favorable terms as we can get. My job as a potential commander in chief is to view your counsel and your interests through the prism of our overall national security which includes what is happening in Afghanistan, which includes the costs to our image in the middle east, to the continued occupation, which includes the financial costs of our occupation, which includes what it is doing to our military. So I said look, I described in my mind at list an analogous situation where I am sure he has to deal with situations where the commanding officer in [inaudible] says I need more troops here now because I really think I can make progress doing x y and z. That commanding officer is doing his job in Ramadi, but Petraeus’s job is to step back and see how does it impact Iraq as a whole. My argument was I have got to do the same thing here. And based on my strong assessment particularly having just come from Afghanistan were going to have to make a different decision. But the point is that hopefully I communicated to the press my complete respect and gratitude to him and Proder who was in the meeting for their outstanding work. Our differences don’t necessarily derive from differences in sort of, or my differences with him don’t derive from tactical objections to his approach. But rather from a strategic framework that is trying to take into account the challenges to our national security and the fact that we’ve got finite resources.
I have made this general point again and again — about airline security, about terrorism, about a lot of things — that the person in charge of the security system can’t be the person who decides what resources to devote to that security system. The analogy I like to use is a company: the VP of marketing wants all the money for marketing, the VP of engineering wants all the money for engineering, and so on; and the CEO has to balance all of those needs and do what’s right for the company. So of course the TSA wants to spend all this money on new airplane security systems; that’s their job. Someone above the TSA has to balance the risks to airlines with the other risks our country faces and allocate budget accordingly. Security is a trade-off, and that trade-off has to be made by someone with responsibility over all aspects of that trade-off.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard a politician make this point so explicitly.
EDITED TO ADD (10/27): This is a security blog, not a political blog. As such, I have deleted all political comments below — on both sides.. You are welcome to discuss this notion of security trade-offs and the appropriate level to make them, but not the election or the candidates.
Posted on October 27, 2008 at 6:31 AM •
Nice paragraph on the limitations of risk management in this occasionally interesting interview with Nicholas Taleb:
Because then you get a Maginot Line problem. [After World War I, the French erected concrete fortifications to prevent Germany from invading again — a response to the previous war, which proved ineffective for the next one.] You know, they make sure they solve that particular problem, the Germans will not invade from here. The thing you have to be aware of most obviously is scenario planning, because typically if you talk about scenarios, you’ll overestimate the probability of these scenarios. If you examine them at the expense of those you don’t examine, sometimes it has left a lot of people worse off, so scenario planning can be bad. I’ll just take my track record. Those who did scenario planning have not fared better than those who did not do scenario planning. A lot of people have done some kind of “make-sense” type measures, and that has made them more vulnerable because they give the illusion of having done your job. This is the problem with risk management. I always come back to a classical question. Don’t give a fool the illusion of risk management. Don’t ask someone to guess the number of dentists in Manhattan after asking him the last four digits of his Social Security number. The numbers will always be correlated. I actually did some work on risk management, to show how stupid we are when it comes to risk.
Posted on October 3, 2008 at 7:48 AM •
Some reality to counter the hype.
The Bottom Line
While there has been much consternation and alarm-raising over the potential for widespread proliferation of biological weapons and the possible use of such weapons on a massive scale, there are significant constraints on such designs. The current dearth of substantial biological weapons programs and arsenals by governments worldwide, and the even smaller number of cases in which systems were actually used, seems to belie — or at least bring into question — the intense concern about such programs.
While we would like to believe that countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia have halted their biological warfare programs for some noble ideological or humanitarian reason, we simply can’t. If biological weapons were in practice as effective as some would lead us to believe, these states would surely maintain stockpiles of them, just as they have maintained their nuclear weapons programs. Biological weapons programs were abandoned because they proved to be not as effective as advertised and because conventional munitions proved to provide more bang for the buck.
Posted on August 13, 2008 at 2:29 PM •
Great security story from an obituary of former OSS agent Roger Hall:
One of his favorite OSS stories involved a colleague sent to occupied France to destroy a seemingly impenetrable German tank at a key crossroads. The French resistance found that grenades were no use.
The OSS man, fluent in German and dressed like a French peasant, walked up to the tank and yelled, “Mail!”
The lid opened, and in went two grenades.
Hall’s book about his OSS days, You’re Stepping on My Cloak and Dagger, is a must-read.
Posted on July 29, 2008 at 1:50 PM •
Jared Diamond on vengeance and human nature:
This question of state government’s recent origins, and, conversely, of its long failure to originate throughout most of human history, is a fundamental concern for social scientists. Until fifty-five hundred years ago, there were no state governments anywhere in the world. Even as late as 1492, all of North America, sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, New Guinea, and the Pacific islands, and most of Central and South America didn’t have states and instead operated under simpler forms of societal organization (chiefdoms, tribes, and bands). Today, though, the whole world map is divided into states. Of course, most of that extension of state government has involved existing states from elsewhere imposing their government on stateless societies, as happened in New Guinea. But the first state in world history, at least, must have arisen de novo, and we now know that states arose independently in many parts of the world. How did it happen?
…anthropologists, historians, and archeologists tell us that state governments have arisen independently under one of two sets of circumstances. Sometimes external pressure from an encroaching state has placed a people under such duress that it ceded individual rights to a government of its own that would be capable of offering effective resistance. For instance, about two centuries ago, the formerly separate Cherokee chiefdoms gradually formed a unified Cherokee government in a desperate attempt to resist pressure from whites. More frequently, chronic competition among warring non-state entities has ended when one gained a military advantage over the others by developing proto-state institutions: one example is the formation of the Zulu state by a particularly talented chief named Dingiswayo, in the early nineteenth century, out of an assortment of chiefdoms fighting each other.
We regularly ignore the fact that the thirst for vengeance is among the strongest of human emotions. It ranks with love, anger, grief, and fear, about which we talk incessantly. Modern state societies permit and encourage us to express our love, anger, grief, and fear, but not our thirst for vengeance. We grow up being taught that such feelings are primitive, something to be ashamed of and to transcend.
There is no doubt that state acceptance of every individual’s right to exact personal vengeance would make it impossible for us to coexist peacefully as fellow-citizens of the same state. Otherwise, we, too, would be living under the conditions of constant warfare prevailing in non-state societies like those of the New Guinea Highlands.
Posted on May 29, 2008 at 1:07 PM •
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.