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Military robots the new soldiers on the field

Regan Meloche

Robots are gradually replacing humans in many areas, but should we let them replace human soldiers on the battlefield? This is a question many scientists and researchers are asking themselves.

Last week, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jody Williams teamed up with Human Rights Watch (HRW) to advocate a ban on “killer robots,” releasing a 50-page report entitled Losing Humanity: The case against killer robots. The report notes that humans are being replaced on the battlefield by robots, or autonomous weapons, more and more. These weapons come in all shapes and sizes, and include drones, mortars, and sentries.

The weapons can fall into three categories: human in-the-loop, which are robots able to select targets, but can only deliver force or attack with human command; human on-the-loop, which are robots that select targets and attack on their own, with a human supervisor who can override the robot’s actions; and human out-of-the-loop, robots select targets and attack without any human interaction.

A majority of military robots today are in-the-loop. The report by HRW warns that if left unchecked, out-of-the-loop robots may be developed within the next 20 to 30 years. The advantages of using robotic technology on the battlefield are clear. By using robots, militaries require less human power on the ground. Currently having no emotions, robots would also be ‘fearless’ on the battlefield and be able to make sacrifices that humans might not.

But, the advantage of having no emotions is also seen as the main problem of autonomous weapons by the HRW. The robots may be programmed to recognize a human, but it has no way of distinguishing between a combatant and an innocent civilian. For example, the robot may mistake a child with a toy for a soldier with a gun. The only way to distinguish is to know the “intent” of the target. Does the target want to attack or is the target trying to escape? HRW argues that small nuances like this can only be recognized by humans, and this is one of their main arguments why autonomous weapons must be banned.

One of the most relevant examples of this problem is the South Korean sentry robots that have been guarding their demilitarized zone for the past couple years. These robots are able to distinguish humans from animals using sensors and pattern recognition from a distance of 500 meters. While the actual firing mechanism is done by a human, the robots come with an automatic mode.

Myung Ho Yoo, one of the lead engineers on the project, believes that for this case, the robot doesn’t need to distinguish whether the human target is a civilian or combatant. If you are in the zone, you are automatically an enemy. The fully automatic mode is the type of thing that the HRW has a problem with.

The question that is left to be asked, then, is does this technology need to be regulated globally before it gets out of hand? It raises a bigger question about the somewhat oxymoronic concept of rules of war.

For example, international humanitarian law currently prohibits disproportionate attacks where civilian harm outweighs military benefits. The Martens clause, also states that weapons are unlawful if they contravene principles of humanity. Since ‘military benefits’ and ‘principles of humanity’ mean very different things to different cultures, this causes a complicated issues.

In addition to their military dangers, some have also likened the concept of autonomous weapons to landmines, another weapon that kills indiscriminately. Jody Williams’ 1997 Nobel Peace Prize was a result of her international campaign to ban anti-personnel landmines, which led to the Ottawa Treaty. Many countries signed the treaty, promising not to use mines, but a number of countries did not sign on, including the United States, China, Russia, India, Israel, and Iraq. As a result, when it comes to war, some countries may not follow these international ‘rules’.

Some have questioned whether countries should ban things like mines or autonomous weapons, in hopes of setting a peaceful example. Or, they say, is this a naive hope, since doing something like this would deprive the world of useful weapons?

The main argument for banning autonomous weapons is that robots cannot connect with other humans, risking killing innocent civilians mercilessly. This concept also raises some important questions.

While it may be true that robots don’t have emotions now, does that mean that it will be true in the future? Is it possible to program a robot to be ‘ethical,’ and is there anything stopping the creation of robots that mimic certain human emotions? These are questions with answers that not all agree on, but need to be addressed when considering ideas like using robots on the battlefield.

An arugment that has been brought up is that human emotions work both ways. Sometimes, they could stop someone from killing an innocent human being, but they may also turn irrational, which can cause some soldiers to abuse their power in terrible ways. Both the emotional, human side and the logical, robotic side have their own advantages and disadvantages.

To end on a more positive note, it is worth mentioning that just because a robot is a military robot, it does not necessarily mean it is being used as an attack weapon. There are military robots that detect landmines and sniff out bombs. Researchers are even working on a robot that can rescue wounded soldiers from the battlefield. So, with such a double edged sword, the debate on robot creation continues on, as both pros and cons are battled out.

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