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When will people invent robots to fight in wars?

When will people invent robots to fight in wars?
James Gigner from Lincolnshire (Age: 5-14)

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One Response

  1. Hello James

    The answer is that people are already inventing robots to fight in wars. The United States army have used quite a few different kinds of robot in the Iraq war, here is a web page showing pictures of these robots:
    http://www.auvsi.org/iraq/index.cfm

    As you will see most of these robots are aircraft, or Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs), which are in fact remotely controlled (teleoperated) by human pilots. Another robot is a full sized teleoperated tractor, and three are smaller teleoperated tracked robots. The smallest of these is the iRobot PACKBOT, which is described on iRobot’s web pages here:
    http://www.irobot.com/sp.cfm?pageid=171

    In fact all of these robots are remotely controlled by human operators and therefore I personally do not think they are proper robots. In my opinion a real robot would be autonomous, in other words would decide what to do next on its own. It would have – in other words – artificial intelligence.

    I’m glad that you have asked this question James, because you have given me an opportunity to raise the question of the ethical use of robots, which is something I think society needs to seriously think about and discuss.

    In my opinion the use of robots like the PACKBOT, which allows soldiers or the police to search buildings for unexploded bombs without having to physically go into the buildings themselves, is a good thing. Robots for humanitarian demining (i.e. to find and make unexploded mines safe) are also, in my opinion, a very good use of robot technology.

    However, there is a development in military robotics that I do find very worrying indeed, and that is when guns are fitted to robots. In other words, when the robots become offensive weapons. Here is a BBC report about a robot with a gun from January 2005.
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/4199935.stm

    At the moment these robots are, like the ones I mentioned above, teleoperated, and it is a human being who decides when the robot has to fire its gun. (Actually even that worries me, because the human operator is relying on seeing through the robot’s cameras which may not give a very good view and therefore the operator is – I think – more likely to make a mistake.)

    However, the thing that I find extremely worrying is when these robots are designed to be autonomous – in other words when armies start to use robots-with-guns that decide when to fire the gun on their own. The reason this worries me is that making the ‘correct’ decision about when and who to shoot is very hard for human beings – who as we know sometimes get it wrong with tragic consequences. But robot artificial intelligence is still at the level of intelligence of insects. We are, in my opinion, a very long way indeed from being able to build artificial intelligence comparable to human intelligence. (See my other Big Answers on robots for more discussion about this.)

    Personally I wouldn’t trust an autonomous robot, with a gun, and a brain the size of an ant. Would you?

    That’s a technical argument for why I think robots with guns are a bad idea. Of course society could also decide that they don’t want their military to have robots-with-guns, on purely ethical grounds. A worry about autonomous robots with guns is that they remove the moral decision about when to pull the trigger from a human being – because that decision is then being made by a robot. Whoever sends the robots into battle (the army for instance) could then feel less responsible for what happens on the battlefield. That, I think, would be a bad thing.

    I hope this helps to answer your question.

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