An epiphany on killer drones

Predator Drone

Predator Drone

I am currently finishing an article on autonomous killer drones – military robots that can go out, identify and kill enemy combatants without human supervision.  They don’t exist yet, but technology is inching us closer to that day.  54 countries are developing military robots and autonomy is a hot feature.

My paper argues that autonomous killer robots are illegal under international humanitarian law because various IHL provisions require the exercise of discretion in combat, a quality I argue that robots lack.

One argument against this position is while robots don’t possess human-like discretion, they also don’t possess human-like foibles such as temper, volatility, fear, anxiety or revenge.  These emotions conspire to cause soldiers to lose their cool in the heat of battle.  It is often argued that a major advantage robots have over humans is that they can fire second.

This ability to fire second was the source of my epiphany.  It occurred to me that a Monitor and Merrimack moment is looming, a time when two enemy autonomous robots first meet in combat.  But what if both robots are programmed to fire second?  They may approach and circle each other, waiting in vain for the other to initiate the use of force.  Peace may break out, unless some human intervenes to save the day.

5 Responses to “An epiphany on killer drones”

  1. Molly McNab says:

    A few thoughts. First, it seems like we might be at the perfect technical balance right now with drone technology to comply with international humanitarian law and satisfy the needs of the military. Like you said, autonomous drones lack discretion, but they also lack emotion. The current drone systems are flown by human pilots, sometimes located thousands of miles away from their target, using PlayStation-esque remote controls. Isn’t this the perfect balance of removing the heat of passion from the battle, but maintaining the discretion of the pilot? Do you think the current drone system used by the U.S. is striking such a balance?

    Second, wouldn’t programming to fire second render the drones useless after a short period of time – well before they are met by their technological equivalent? These drones would likely first be used against fighters with much less sophisticated weaponry, like in Pakistan/Afghanistan against al Qaeda. So wouldn’t the soldiers quickly learn not to fire at drones? Without a first fire, the drones would not attack. And then it seems like we would be back to where we started – needing human discretion to take the first shot.

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    • David says:

      Yes, remotely piloted drones may strike such a balance. However, it remains to be seen whether remote killing is more thoughtful and restrained than in person killing. But it is definitely possible that remotely controlled drones could be more balanced as you say. No studies have been done to my knowledge.

      However, my argument is forward thinking; drones that have an algorhythm to kill, and discretion is calculated based on inputted criteria without any human intervention. That is what I argue should be illegal.

      People in favor of autonomy says an advantage of autonomous drones is that they could fire second, but they could of course be programmed to fire first as well. Currently, there are defensive autonomous systems that only fire second to respond to incoming fire.

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  2. Christopher Nicolaysen says:

    I would agree that the robot drones cannot exercise discretion, however we expect those controlling the drones across the sea to do just that. I wonder if we are approaching an age where due to technology (Facebook, Twitter, Call of Duty) that is becoming harder and harder for even those controlling the drones to exercise discretion? Also, the idea of a fire second approach is interesting food for thought.

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    • David says:

      Its a fair point Chris. One virtue of remotely piloted drones is persistence, that is the ability to track a suspected target for days, weeks and even months to verify they are a legitimate target. There is the possibility that they could be better than humans in the field who can’t stay on a target that long.

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  3. Tessa says:

    I would hope that a machine is never given the discretion to independently fire at all – either first or second. While technology may be inching us toward that possibility of autonomous killer drones, the US military seems to be reluctant to go down that road…thankfully. There is a reason why they are called “remotely piloted vehicles.” The pilot may not be located in the same country – or hemisphere – but I hope there will always be a pilot.

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University of Denver Sturm College of Law

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