The pros and cons of a robot army

Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Newscom
A picture taken on October 12, 2009 during the Israel Defense exhibition at the Ganei Ha-tarucha Fair Center in Tel Aviv shows a new Unmanned Aircraft System.

With yesterday's look into the ethics of a robot army, here is a quick breakdown of the pros and cons of mechanical soldiers.

The question of whether to deploy on the battlefield armed robots that would make their own decisions has raised many ethical questions, among them:

  • Will robot fighters be able to distinguishing between enemy troops and innocent civilians? Must robot fighters do this perfectly or is it enough if they merely make good decisions more often than human soldiers?
  • Can programmers imagine every situation that robots will encounter on the battlefield? If not, robots could make lethal mistakes when first deployed.
  • Might robots be “hacked” by the enemy and turned against friendly troops? If robots contained a remote “kill switch” to shut them down in case that happened, might that be hacked by the enemy to disable them?
  • What if rogue friendly soldiers override a robot’s safety and ethical programs and use it to take some action against the rules of war?
  • If robots break the rules of war, who takes responsibility? The manufacturer? The programmer? The nearest human commander?
  • If robots gather information on the conduct of human troops using video or other sensors, might soldiers feel they are being “spied on” and resent the robots, thus harming morale?
  • If robots reduce casualties for an aggressor, might they make war more likely, especially against a technologically inferior opponent?
  • But Experts also cite advantages to using robots on the battlefield. For example, they could:

  • Replace soldiers in dangerous missions, such as crawling through caves or in street-to-street urban combat, reducing casualties.
  • Reduce civilian casualties if used properly and if sufficient ethical programming could be developed.
  • Act as a “force multiplier.” One human fighter could command a squad of robots working semiautonomously.
  • Make faster decisions than humans, an important advantage on the modern battlefield.
  • Be unaffected by anger, revenge, hunger, fear, fatigue, or stress.
  • Use video or other sensors to monitor human soldiers on both sides of a battle for violations of the laws of war.
  • Refuse to carry out an unethical or illegal commands, something a human soldier might be pressured not to do.
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