Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Beware the killer robots

Beware the killer robots
The use of robot soldiers may appeal to the Pentagon. They should not to anyone else.

Ian Williams
check out the Guardian site to see the robotic responses from American nationalists!

August 21, 2007 2:30 PM
The headlines said that the US was moving towards building robot soldiers. My first thought was this was not such a bad idea. Robots could be programmed to refuse to obey illegal orders, ranging from illegal invasions of other countries to violations of the Geneva Conventions.

They would carry out their duties without prejudice and would not get stressed out at being under attack and unleash a torrent of fire against any passing civilians. They could not really take much pleasure in humiliating the "enemy," and so would avoid having them posing for sexually humiliating photographs.

If programmed properly, they would not be worried about their career prospects if they refused orders to torture or even take part in "robust" interrogations of prisoners. Free of sexual hang-ups, they would not feel the need to rape or kill the "enemy" civilians. Their database of knowledge would, one hopes, avoid the Murdoch press and so they would not need to exorcise the rancour of blaming whoever the enemy du jour is for September 11.

On the other hand, computer recognition skills being what they are, could you trust a robot to tell the difference between a passing a civilian and enemy combatant, when the Pentagon has so much difficulty itself? Wouldn't the people who wrote programs be drafted in from GOP donor electronic voting machine makers? There might a risk of mis-programed robots gunning down registered Democrats among the GI's.

The robots would also need a regular memory dump so they do not get confused when yesterday's ally suddenly becomes today's hub of the Axis of Evil.

Indeed, if Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had a hand in writing the military code into the program, a prohibition against torture would probably invoke a contradictory subroutine to fill the bathtub and bring out the water-board! He certainly would not be keying in Asimov's laws of robotics any more than an evangelist military chaplain would tell his flock about turning the other cheek.

In fact, apart from the science-fictional frisson that the headlines invoked, the machines under development are not real robots, but remotely controlled death starlets. That raises other worries. One might think that the absence of existential threat to the operator would give the opportunity for calm and reasoned reactions. Unless, that is, you had seen video game fans at work, and then you consider the effects of physical impunity on an enthusiastic late adolescent operator.

Many veterans report how difficult it is for most soldiers to actually kill an enemy, moving and breathing in front of them. It is part of our essential humanity. But if instead of a live human, all you see is an image in a screen, then the daily holocaust of the videogames suggests it is very easy to overcome those human scruples. The landmine is in fact an elementary robot soldier, killing to a simple program, which almost invariable fails to distinguish between combatant and civilian, enemy and friend. If soldiers kills a civilian, they may get tried. When has a soldier ever been prosecuted for planting a mine after it has disemboweled a child, or seeding an area with cluster bombs?

In the end, one almost has to agree that the NRA has a (strictly limited) point. Robots will not kill people any more than guns do. Those who operate and program them are responsible for their outcomes. The danger is, of course, that the more distance between the commander and the outcome, the less chance there is of retribution and justice, as the White House team responsible for the sorry debacle in Iraq can testify. Guns and lethal robots alike need controlling carefully.

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