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Mind Over Machine: Why Human Soldiers are (and Will Remain) Better than Killer Robots

Guest post by MAC Research Associate, Andrew Luth

This summer, movie-goers are flocking to theatres to see tales of superheroes, dinosaurs, and plucky college singing groups. Two of the season’s biggest movies, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Terminator Genisys have more in common than an over-886723_4178378_ireliance on computer-generated visual effects. Both feature killer robots: advanced weapons systems capable of fighting and killing independent of human command. Killer robots have been a staple of popcorn flicks for decades, but these days movies aren’t the only place we can expect to see them turning up. Many of the world’s most advanced militaries are getting closer and closer to producing killer robots of their own. Killer robots or autonomous weapons systems (AWS) are machines capable of identifying and attacking targets without human intervention. Despite the moral and legal concerns about such weapons, leading scientists and engineers are warning that AWS may be only a few years away from reality. The few who support the development of AWS tend to view them as inherently superior to human soldiers. Robots, they argue, don’t get tired or emotional, and are more expendable than human soldiers. As University of Massachusetts-Amherst Professor Charli Carpenter explains, some supporters have even gone so far as to say that “robots won’t rape,” overlooking the reality that rape and other war crimes are often ordered military tactics. All such arguments assume AWS will make better soldiers than humans. However, they fail to fully consider how human soldiers are actually superior to AWS. Several attributes of human physiology and behaviour give human soldiers the edge over autonomous weapons systems not just now, but for the foreseeable future.

According to the international legal principle of distinction, belligerent parties must distinguish between civilians and combatants when using force in combat. Human soldiers have a significant advantage over artificial systems in meeting this requirement. The human brain and eye work in tandem to process complex visual information incredibly quickly and efficiently. This skill is invaluable on the battlefield, enabling soldiers to pick out subtle distinctions in shape, colour, texture, and movement from long distances and use that information to their advantage. Technology is developing quickly and it is conceivable that computers will someday rival our visual processing powers, but no computer program has yet come close to human abilities to pick out patterns and identify objects even in motionless two dimensional images. Even further out of the realm of possibility for robotics is the brain’s aptitude for reading human behaviour. The human mind is particularly attuned to reading tiny changes in expression and body language even subconsciously. This is immensely important in combat scenarios, where soldiers need to determine an unknown party’s intent almost instantly, with fractions of a second making the difference between life and death. The science of computer vision is advancing rapidly, but it is likely to be decades before AWS can even approach the visual acuity of human soldiers, if ever.

Even if scientists eventually develop autonomous weapons systems with visual processing skills superior to our own, a human soldier would still have many advantages over killer robots. The highly flexible and adaptive nature of the human mind is perhaps the most distinct advantage. This flexibility allows us to receive and process information both from our natural senses and external sources. In addition to acquiring information by communicating with other soldiers, humans can quickly learn to integrate data from radar, night vision, infrared, and other technologies. Furthermore, to analyze this information human soldiers draw on a wealth of learning and experience from all areas of life. Robots, however, are generally designed to analyze specific information sources using pre-determined metrics, making it impossible for them to evaluate or even to detect unanticipated information. In many situations, the success of a mission could balance on the ability to respond to such information.

The human mind’s flexibility also means soldiers can perform any number of activities a situation requires. This is invaluable during military conflict. In his famous work The Art of War, Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu explains “just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions.” Truly successful military tactics, he writes, are “regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.” Humans are well-equipped to respond to this infinite variety. A modern infantry soldier can fire a rifle accurately, provide emergency medical aid, accept a prisoner’s surrender, operate a vehicle, assess enemy tactics, and perform any number of other necessary tasks. Robots however are specialists, designed to respond to a specific scenario or perform a single task, often in controlled environments. In his recent piece on killer robots for Just Security, retired Canadian military officer John MacBride quotes famed German military theorist Helmuth von Moltke’s observation that “no operation extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main body of the enemy.” When a mission’s parameters change quickly, human minds learn and adapt, developing creative solutions to novel problems. However, when robots meet unanticipated challenges, they often fail spectacularly, necessitating significant human intervention. As MacBride explains, this is distinct cause for concern. There are bound to be programming flaws and oversights when a machine developed years in advance under controlled conditions makes its debut on a battlefield. IBM’s famed computing system Watson illustrated this perfectly during its star turn on the television game show Jeopardy!. Despite its dominant win over two human champions, in response to a question in the Final Jeopardy category of US Cities, Watson answered ‘Toronto’. Such failure is humourous in a game show setting, but the consequences of a similar error on the battlefield could be deadly.

In spite of Watson’s amazing performance, its failures demonstrate that neither human beings nor technological systems can be perfect. Whether out of fatigue, emotion, prejudice, or simple lack of information, human soldiers can and do make poor decisions. When these mistakes result in the deaths of fellow soldiers or innocent civilians, judicial systems are in place to hold military personnel accountable for their unethical behaviour or poor judgement. If AWS are deployed it is inevitable they too will perpetrate atrocities, whether from programming error, technical failure, or unpredictable variables. However, our society has no recourse for crimes committed by robots. Our justice system rests upon punishing immoral acts, but an autonomous weapons system has about as much sense of right and wrong as a toaster. Robots lack the capacity to make ethical decisions, acting only as their programming dictates. Nonetheless, a crime perpetrated by a robot is still a crime. Should society therefore pursue justice with the programmer? The commander? Or would leaders deem certain levels of ‘collateral damage’ acceptable and overlook any atrocities perpetrated by an AWS?

Our respect for the capacity of others to make moral choices is one among many reasons we value human life so highly. As such, the supporters of autonomous weapons systems often claim the best argument for AWS adoption is the potential they have to reduce human casualties. This assertion is tenuous at best. Given that autonomous weapons systems would already require remote oversight and operation capabilities, it would be a simple matter of procedure to give human operators final approval over the use of lethal force on a given target. It is unlikely fully ceding authority over weapons systems to computers would do anything to make military personnel safer. In fact, AWS might actually increase the likelihood of military engagement. Operating an AWS is far cheaper than training and deploying a human soldier, making them relatively expendable. Having access to relatively cheap and easily-replaced military assets significantly lowers the political and financial costs of military action, making states more likely to wage war in the first place. We have already witnessed the advent of this trend with the proliferation of unmanned military drones. Drone technology now allows leaders to conduct military campaigns abroad while their citizens pay little attention. Autonomous weapons systems could take this trend to its extreme, with robots conducting foreign bombing raids or assassinations with little human involvement. Protecting military personnel is a worthy goal, but our aversion to the human cost of war is the reason we place such high value on peace in the first place. Each tragic loss of life compels a society to consider the worthiness of its cause. Sending robots to do the killing externalizes the horrific consequences of war, making governments more willing to wage wars and less concerned with ending them.

We live in a world that sometimes forces us to take human lives. For thousands of years, some of humanity’s greatest minds have worked to develop philosophical and ethical frameworks to guide our decisions in war. Recently however, it has been difficult for us to keep pace with technology’s rapid proliferation. As technology revolutionizes all aspects of society, we can scarcely consider the social and ethical consequences of each new development before it arrives. The advent of nuclear weapons, the internet and countless other scientific advances all bear witness to our ethical tardiness. Although scientists are now making huge breakthroughs in robotics and artificial intelligence, no matter how skilled robots become at distinguishing between targets, we owe it to ourselves and all of humanity to fully consider each decision to use deadly force. Passing this choice off to an amoral machine would be unethical by definition. We currently live in a world where killer robots appear only in movies and other works of fiction, but it may not be long before they make the jump from movie screens to the real world. The international community must take action and ban these immoral weapons before they become a reality.

After graduating from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Andrew Luth spent two years living and working in China. He is currently pursuing his master’s degree at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in Ottawa, Canada. His academic interests include disarmament, conflict analysis and resolution, and the Asia-Pacific region.

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Guest Post – Killer Robots in Geneva: Through the Ottawa Looking Glass

After the last informal meeting of experts in Geneva on killer robots (or as they prefer to call them “lethal autonomous weapon systems”) wrapped up it is an appropriate time to take stock of what we learned from the conference. A lot of ground was covered in Geneva, too much to cover in one short blog post, but there were a few ideas that received a lot of attention that are worth mentioning here.

First and foremost the idea of ‘meaningful human control’ got a lot of attention from all sides in the debate. So what is meaningful human control and how does that impact the debate on killer robots? Simply put, meaningful human control means that a human will always be the one that makes the decision whether or not to use force. There are three ways in which these systems are often described: human ‘in the loop’, human ‘on the loop’ and human ‘out of the loop’. A system with humans ‘out of the loop’ is the type of system that can target and use force without any human control and is the type of system that the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots seeks to ban. Systems with humans ‘on the loop’ give humans the ability to monitor the activity of the weapon and stop it if necessary. However, these systems may not furnish the decision maker with enough time to assess the information reported by the weapon. Finally, systems with humans ‘in the loop’ are more akin to traditional weapon systems, where the decision to use force rests firmly with a human operator.

The discussion of meaningful human control was linked to discussions about whether or not it was ethical or moral to delegate life and death decisions to machines. Some criticize this approach on the basis that meaningful human control isn’t a legal standard, or is too vague, but that criticism misses the point. This moral and ethical consideration is at the heart of the debate on killer robots; if only strict legal standards were applied then the ability and function of the technology would begin to determine how it is used. Strictly applying legal standards may approve the use of killer robots in areas that seemingly have no impact on civilians such as in outer space. Once such a precedent was set it would be difficult to stop the full use of killer robots.

After meaningful human control, the arguments made against a pre-emptive ban on killer robots formed a consistent theme throughout the conference, no matter the specific subject at hand. The refrain goes something like this, “We don’t know how this technology will evolve, so a pre-emptive ban could deprive the world of potentially useful technologies”. There is a concrete example of this not happening (the ban on blinding laser weapons), and various other treaties with dual-use implications have proven that banning a class of weapon does not adversely impact commercial or industrial activity. The Chemical Weapons Convention, which was discussed, provides a good example of how an export-control regime and competent verification can stop the spread of chemical weapons, while maintaining the ability of states to develop chemical industries.

Clearly then, neither of these two things should stop us from a pre-emptive ban on killer robots. As a co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, Mines Action Canada encourages all of you to engage with the issue and to advocate for a ban with your friends, family, local politician and anyone else who wants to listen. An easy way to start would be signing and sharing our petition to Keep Killer Robots Fiction here: http://killerrobots-minesactioncanada.nationbuilder.com/.

Michael Binnington is a M.A. Candidate at Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and a Research Associate at Mines Action Canada.

Guest Post: The Importance of a Ban on Killer Robots for an International Affairs Student

by Brett MacFarlane

When I first applied for an internship position to work on the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots back in November, I knew virtually nothing on either the campaign or the killer robots issue. I chose the internship with Mines Action Canada as my top choice because it was the position which most closely related to my field of study: Conflict Analysis and Conflict Resolution. When submitting my application, I had a conversation with my fellow students on just what exactly were killer robots. The general consensus of the group was that killer robots had to be drones that were being militarily used in such countries as Pakistan and Yemen.

Since joining the International Campaign to Stop Killer Robots in January, I have had the privilege of being exposed to a new issue that has not been discussed by the general public or even most international affairs students. I learned about current development efforts by militaries to create robotic weapons which would have complete autonomy to choose whether or not to fire on a specified target without meaningful human control. Most disturbingly I learned that some countries (e.g. the United States, Israel, and several others) have not only taken steps to develop “human-out-of-the-loop weapons”, but that some current technologies could easily be adapted to become autonomous weapons. As a student studying in an international affairs program and as a concerned person, this issue raises human rights and humanitarian concerns.

The use of autonomous weapons is a troubling issue for human rights advocates and humanitarian organizations because it would make humans increasingly vulnerable in warfare where international law is not designed to accommodate autonomous weapons. First, how could the protection of civilians be guaranteed in times of combat? If human judgment is taken out of the battlefield, robots would be tasked with distinguishing armed combatants from ordinary citizens. In this scenario, would a robot have the capability to differentiate between a soldier holding a weapon from a child holding a toy gun? The potential to have such mistakes be made is likely to occur so long as robots are given higher autonomy and decision-making capabilities on the battlefield. Further, the development and use of autonomous weapons could pose serious issues of accountability in war. For example, if a robotic system was to go awry and end up massacring a village of non-combatants, who would be held accountable? Would it be the systems operator of the machine, the military, the computer programmer, or the manufacturer of the machine? Without military troops in the air, land, or sea, who can be held liable for the actions of robots in combat? Implementing the use of autonomous robots in war would severely reduce the legal protections civilians are accorded during conflict.

I am very concerned that putting autonomous weapons on the battlefield would change how wars are fought and conducted. Wars would no longer be fought by the military personnel of two opposing sides; but by autonomous weapons, capable of making their own ‘kill decision’, against human forces. Countries which have the financial means to develop autonomous weapons could threaten lesser developed countries who would bear the costs of higher human casualties on the battlefield. More importantly, the potential for an increase in future conflict will grow as the decision to enter into combat would be much easier for leaders to make as they would not have to bear the costs of human casualties. The concern here is that countries would be sending machines to fight against humans, instead of the traditional model of human versus human. As difficult as this may be to hear, it is only through the casualties of soldiers on the battlefield that we are able to see the true cost of warfare. Taking human sacrifice out of the battlefield could potentially cause an increase in future warfare.

As interest in the topic of killer robots in the international community grows, it is pertinent that students, and indeed all citizens, begin to discuss the development of autonomous robots for military use in their respective fields. Should silence continue not only in the academic community, but in the Canadian parliament and public domain, the potential for autonomous robots to make life and death decisions on the battlefield without human control may be realized. As one concerned student, and citizen, who has signed the petition to Keep Killer Robots Fiction, I strongly encourage all to Keep Killer Robots Fiction by not only gaining exposure and increasing their knowledge on the subject, but to join me in signing the petition at http://bit.ly/KRpetition. Only through increased discussion and knowledge of this topic in the general community can pressure be mounted on governments to create a pre-emptive ban on this emerging threat.

Brett MacFarlane interned at Mines Action Canada and is a Master of the Arts Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University specializing in Conflict Analysis and Conflict Resolution. 

Guest Post: Killer Robots in Canadian Context

By Matthew Taylor

There is nothing Canadian about machines that kill people without human control. Machines that have no conscience. Machines that have no compassion. Machines without the ability to distinguish between someone who is a genuine threat and someone in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We, as a people, have for many years sought to build a safer and more peaceful world. Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney made Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid in South Africa “the highest priority of the government of Canada in our foreign affairs.”  Former Prime Minister Lester Pearson brought about modern peacekeeping in 1956. Former Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy gathered states in our nation’s capital to end the use of anti-personnel landmines around the world. These men understood that a desire for peace and justice is a basic Canadian value.  That is not something a machine can ever understand.

This issue presents us as Canadians with an opportunity to share our values, and our vision for a safer world. Killer Robots are perhaps the most important international arms control issue to emerge since nuclear weapons were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nuclear weapons redefined how we understood and approached warfare. That is why it is so absolutely necessary for the world to confront the problem of killer robots before and not after they see action on the battlefield.

The costs of playing catch up are far too evident. Once weapons are employed, most countries will scramble to re-adjust for the change in balance in power. During World War I chemical weapons were used against Canadian soldiers causing blindness, death and unspeakable suffering. Nearly one hundred years later chemical weapons were being used in Syria causing death and significant harm to civilians. With thousands of casualties of chemical weapons in between, the difficulty of banning weapons once they have been put into use is quite evident.

History has shown that the support and leadership of our nation can bring about international change. We have a duty as moral entrepreneurs to prevent the horror of autonomous killing machines from ever becoming a reality.

In November 2013, states agreed to discuss the question of lethal autonomous robots in meetings of the Convention on Conventional Weapons in May, 2014. This umbrella agreement allows for 117 member states to consider issues of arms control.

But at the moment, the official Canadian government position on Killer Robots is unclear. A government statement in the February 2014 edition of L’actualite offers little insight. In the article, a Canadian Foreign Affairs spokesman indicated that Canada does not ban weapons that do not yet exist. But in fact, Canada has participated in a pre-emptive ban of weapons before.

In 1995, Canada was one of the original parties to Protocol IV of the Convention to Conventional Weapons. This international agreement banning blinding lasers was made in the very same forum in whichkiller robots are set to be discussed in May. This not only represents a step in the right direction but a precedent upon which to build.

If a pre-emptive ban has been done before, it can be done again. Whether a weapon exists yet or not should have no bearing on whether the technology should be illegal under international humanitarian law. What should matter is whether we as a people believe that these weapons can ever be considered to be humane. To me, and to many others, the answer to that question is clearly no.

If you feel that as Canadians we must take a stand, please join me in signing our petition to Keep Killer Robots Fiction.

Matthew Taylor is an intern at Mines Action Canada and is a Master of the Arts Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University specializing in Intelligence and National Security.