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War robots will lessen killing – not increase it

Stemming from fear that autonomous robots could embark on a campaign of indiscriminate killing, some have called for a global moratorium on 'lethal autonomous robotics.' In fact, there is a convincing base of evidence that robots are more likely to prevent slaughter than engage in it.

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Bipedal humanoid robot 'Atlas,' primarily developed by the American robotics company Boston Dynamics, appears at a news conference at the University of Hong Kong Oct. 17.

Tyrone Siu/Reuters

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Could armed autonomous robots embark on a campaign of indiscriminate killing? Fears such as this are behind the growing consternation surrounding the use of robotics in warfare.

In May, Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, implied that "autonomous" lethal robotics could result in “mechanical slaughter.” He called for a global moratorium to be put on the testing, production, and use of these technologies.

It would be difficult to find anyone arguing against the need for reflection in the decision to wage war, regardless of which tools humans use to fight their battles. However, there is a convincing base of evidence that robots are more likely to prevent slaughter than engage in it.

The notion that warfare should be up close and personal – mano a mano, so to speak – disappeared long ago, clearly well before the atomic bomb, and one might even argue before the development of gunpowder. Over time, the variety and availability of weapons has increased, making the option to conduct war at more impersonal and less discriminatory levels.

To some extent, robotics can help to reverse this trend. Specifically, recent research and analysis on ground robotics (some of it conducted at the RAND Corporation, where I am an engineer) has shown that advanced robotics technology has tremendous potential to save lives. And it can save not just the lives of soldiers, airmen, and marines but also the lives of noncombatants who would otherwise fall victim to collateral damage.

How does this work? Fundamentally, robotic platforms can provide an alternative to the large-scale weapons that might otherwise be used. From a tactical perspective, they can provide a physical buffer between friendly and enemy forces. From an analytical perspective, they buy time, a critical component in decisions to use larger-scale lethal force. With more time, greater care can be taken with the decision to use force, and using nonlethal force becomes a more realistic option.

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