Cry havoc and let slip the robots of war?

Stop killer robots now, UN asks: the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Christof Heyns has delivered a report about Lethal Autonomous Robots arguing that there should be a moratorium on the development of autonomous killing machines, at least until we can figure out the ethical and legal issues. He notes that LARs raise far-reaching concerns about the protection of life during war and peace, including whether they can comply with humanitarian and human rights law, how to device legal accountability, and “because robots should not have the power of life and death over human beings.”

Many of these issues have been discussed on this blog and elsewhere, but it is a nice comprehensive review of a number of issues brought up by the new technology. And while the machines do not yet have fully autonomous capabilities the distance to them is chillingly short: dismissing the issue as science fiction is myopic, especially given the slowness of actually reaching legal agreements. However, does it make sense to say that robots should not have the power of life and death over human beings?

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How to deal with double-edged technology

By Brian D. Earp

 World’s smallest drone? Or how to deal with double-edged technology 

BBC News reports that Harvard scientists have developed the world’s smallest flying robot. It’s about the size of a penny, and it moves faster than a human hand can swat. Of course, the inventors of this “diminutive flying vehicle” immediately lauded its potential for bringing good to the world:

1. “We could envision these robots being used for search-and-rescue operations to search for human survivors under collapsed buildings or [in] other hazardous environments.”

2. “They [could] be used for environmental monitoring, to be dispersed into a habitat to sense trace chemicals or other factors.”

3. They might even behave like many real insects and assist with the pollination of crops, “to function as the now-struggling honeybee populations do in supporting agriculture around the world.”

These all seem like pretty commendable uses of a new technology. Yet one can think of some “bad” uses too. The “search and rescue” version of this robot (for example) would presumably be fitted with a camera; and the prospect of a swarm of tiny, remote-controlled flying video recorders raises some obvious questions about spying and privacy. It also prompts one to wonder who will have access to these spy bugs (the U.S. Air Force has long been interested in building miniature espionage drones), and whether there will be effective regulatory strategies capable of tilting future usage more toward the search-and-rescue side of things, and away from the peep-and-record side.

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The double standard of objections to drone strikes against US citizens

On Monday, NBC News released a bombshell memo from the US Department of Justice justifying the killing of American citizens who are believed to be senior al-Qaida leaders. That in itself is not necessarily news – the US famously used a drone strike to kill its own citizens, Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, in 2011. The memo, though, is attracting much attention in large part because it reveals that the Obama administration believes such actions are justified even if there is no intelligence of an active plot to attack the US. The target must still pose an ‘imminent’ threat, but that condition can be fulfilled so long as there is evidence the target is “personally and continually involved in planning terrorist attacks against the US.” This stretches to the breaking point the plausibility of the government’s claim that such drone strikes are acts of self-defense analogous to police killing an assailant to protect an innocent. But I’ve found a tacit assumption in the debate over this memo rather objectionable: it is more legitimate for the US government to kill a foreigner than a US citizen. This assumption is thoroughly flawed, a sort of double standard that makes many commenters recoil at the assassination of al-Awlaki and Khan but shrug off the numerous other lethal drone strikes against senior al-Qaida operatives. Still, the concerns that motivate the double standard are worth taking seriously and can help shed light on what makes the memo so disturbing.   Continue reading

Personalised weapons of mass destruction: governments and strategic emerging technologies

Andrew Hessel, Marc Goodman and Steven Kotler sketches in an article in The Atlantic a not-too-far future when the combination of cheap bioengineering, synthetic biology and crowdsourcing of problem solving allows not just personalised medicine, but also personalised biowarfare. They dramatize it by showing how this could be used to attack the US president, but that is mostly for effect: this kind of technology could in principle be targeted at anyone or any group as long as there existed someone who had a reason to use it and the resources to pay for it. The Secret Service looks like it is aware of the problem and does its best to swipe away traces of the President, but it is hard to imagine this to be perfect, doable for old DNA left behind years ago, or applied by all potential targets. In fact, it looks like the US government is keen on collecting not just biometric data, but DNA from foreign potentates. They might be friends right now, but who knows in ten years…

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