Killer robots vs. human soldiers

When it comes to identifying targets, robots may win the day

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how the case for laws governing armed robots is growing. The post was in response to a report issued by Human Rights Watch, which advocated for an outright ban on autonomous armed machines before they become a reality.

I argued that an outright ban was impractical and perhaps undesirable, with different countries having different needs. Some very much want to take human soldiers out of harm’s way while others might be looking at armed robots as a way of evening the odds against vastly bigger enemies.

One of the things that stood out for me in regards to the report were the claims that robots won’t be able to differentiate between an armed soldier and an innocent girl holding an ice cream cone. I suggested that the technology to do exactly that is developing quickly, so it won’t be long before it’s actually put to use.

A few commentators over at the Lawfare blog, however, took it a step further by suggesting that not only will robots be able to identify hostile targets over innocents, they’ll actually do it better than humans. As Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, wrote:

“The report’s authors make a lot of assumptions about the technology that may well prove wrong. Most importantly, they reject without much examination the possibility that fully autonomous robots might, in some environments and for some situations, distinguish military targets far better and more accurately than humans can. To call for a per se ban on autonomous weapons is to insist as a matter of [international humanitarian law] on preserving a minimum level of human error in targeting. That is defensible only if one is certain that the baseline level of possible robotic error in civilian protection exceeds that baseline level of human error… I, for one, would not bet against the possibility that for some military applications, we will some day come to see mere human judgment as guaranteeing an unacceptable level of indiscriminate and disproportionate violence.”

It is indeed wrong to assume that robots won’t be able to do a certain task better than humans simply because they can’t right now. The list of things that humans can do better than robots is literally shrinking every day, with cutting noodles being the latest addition.

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