By Colin Roberts
The National Interest
The myriad of opinions on the prospect of autonomous weapons in the not-too-distant future seem to portend a hopeless situation—the U.S. is either doomed to defeat by an enemy who fully embraces war-fighting advantage through full autonomy, or Americans are destined to see the complete erosion of humanity and human rights principles which have long guided U.S. forces in combat. To some extent, both sides are right. Senior U.S. leadership can neither dismiss ethical concerns nor cede technological advantage to potential adversaries. However, they should recognize that America’s moral judgment on autonomous weapons is likely to change based on context. So rather than completely disavow full autonomy in favor of concepts like human-machine teaming, DoD leadership should look toward systems capable of both—just like it’s done for decades—with adjustable degrees of autonomy. Such systems would enhance warfighting with a man-in-the-loop today, and provide even greater capability if needed in future major wars.
Regardless of advances in computer processing, without human oversight and control, fully autonomous weapon systems will make mistakes. Perhaps technology will progress to the point where mistakes are few and far between, but they will happen. Proponents of this argument are right; when those mistakes occur in a system’s ability to discriminate between enemy combatant and innocent civilian, atrocities will result.
Of course, the sad reality is that unintended civilian casualties occur in every conflict, even when a human controls the weapon and makes the decisions. Two questions arise then. First, will lethal autonomous systems be more or less likely to make mistakes than those operated by humans? And second, are civilian casualties at the hands of a human inherently less reprehensible than at the hands of a computer?
Picture: Photo by Tom Tschida for NASA (NASA Dryden Flight Research Center: EC05-0090-19) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons