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Armed robot rampage

Sheffield University professor and media darling Noel Sharkey took the spotlight at a policy conference yesterday, warning that wars and terrorist attacks may soon be conducted by robots that can think for themselves. The conference, sponsored by British defence think-tank Royal United Services Institute, was organized specifically to discuss the ethical and legal implications of using unmanned vehicles for defence and security.

Most media reports led with Sharkey’s message that the world is on the verge of a robotic arms race (New Scientist). The Register took a derisive tone. Others have paid it more ‘serious’ attention (Xinhua; FOXnews) (Our favourite headline prize goes to the Inquirer for ‘Robots should be armless’) Alan Boyle (of Cosmic Log, MSNBC) sets up interesting tension between Sharkey and fellow panellist Ronald Arkin of Georgia Tech. While Sharkey is calling for an international ban on military use of autonomous robots until rules can be worked out, Arkin is actively working on creating robots with a ‘sense of right and wrong’.

Even if robots can be made with a ‘conscience’, the quesiton remains as to who will be held responsible for an autonomous robot’s actions in the field. We might avoid certain ethical implications if roboticized weaponry only targeted other weapons, but war, Sharkey has written, isn’t so simple:

In reality, a robot could not pinpoint a weapon without pinpointing the person using it or even discriminate between weapons and non-weapons. I can imagine a little girl being zapped because she points her ice cream at a robot to share. (Gaurdian)

Concerns may not be entirely unwarranted. Military use of unmanned vehicles is on the rise. The US army, for instance, is set to convert roughly one third of their ground vehicles to remote operation by 2015. Thousands of robots with varying levels of autonomy and unmanned aerial vehicles assist troops in Iraq.

Sharkey is not alone in his concern. The legal framework for dealing with war crimes has many potential loopholes when it comes to advanced robots, consultant Chris Elliot told the crowd. Instead, “the real court in which you are judged is the court of public opinion, trial by CNN,” Elliot said. With prices of electronic equipment so low, Elliot added, chances are likely that long before nation-states join the fray, robots that test our ethical limits will be put into use “by people who don’t feel constrained by the law or by public opinion.”


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