The Rabid Conservative

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Killer Robots and The Decision to Open Fire

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I just read this article this morning and it got me thinking about something that has been a problem for warfighters for centuries – the changing conditions of people and how it relates to warfighting.

Sun Tzu wrote prolifically in The Art of War  that whenever a government (what he labeled as “the sovereign”) gets involved in military decisions, usually that leads to military failure.  Sun Tzu pointed out that the Sovereign gives the order to make war and it’s up to the Generals to fight that war, completely and fully.  Sun Tzu frowned on the very notion of politicians getting involved in combat operations for one reason: when the time comes to take action, political pressure could cause that warfighter to waver and not do what, militarily, had to be done.  This is how liberalism has led to the lack of military effectiveness for centuries.

So, the writer of the mentioned article had this to say:

Reducing risk, and casualties, is at the heart of the drive for more and better robots. Ultimately, that means "fully autonomous engagement without human intervention," according to an Army communication to robot designers. In other words, computer programs, not a remote human operator, would decide when to open fire. What worries some experts is that technology is running ahead of deliberations of ethical and legal questions.

While I’m not particularly ready to cede the launch codes of America’s nuke arsenal to a computer program or setting up SkyNet, it does represent the opposite end of Sun Tzu’s point about external influences into military operations. The point that I make here is that robots and computer programs deployed to take combat action will do so without injecting personal remorse or objection.  As the writer of the above article clearly stated, robots don’t care or get demoralized (or energized) if they see a comrade fall.  They don’t get tired, hungry, frustrated at failure or overconfident at success.  They simply will obey the laws of the sovereign without question, exactly what Sun Tzu believed a soldier should be, carrying out their programming for as long as they are able.

(btw – no discussions here about situational ethics or complex situations governing the robot/program’s actions. The point in this post is very specific)

In a wildly theoretical sense, what would happen if we actually had a computer program set up to make combat decisions?  The supports for these decisions would be based on a set of principles that don’t change based on how people are feeling at the time, such as the desire for retaliatory action on 9/12/2001 versus people’s thinking in March 2003 when we went into Iraq, to now, as people are growing more and more tired of war.  The program would not tire nor would be prone to extreme ‘sledgehammer-to-swat-a-fly’ measures.  The program would not care if the Code Pinkers protested on the front yard of the developer.  It would just do as it is told.   Personally, if something like that were ever put in place, it might actually change the scope of what warfighting was about and bring it in line with what Sun Tzu was saying.

Today, people can’t fight a war without having external pressures governing how that war is played out.

* As a side note about this, few will remember this one, but we had Mohammed Omar, also known as the “One-Eyed Mullah” in the cross-hairs during the early part of the war.  Turns out a Predator drone came up on him getting into a vehicle.  We had a clear shot, but our CENTCOM general at the time held fire because the Judge Advocate General (JAG – military lawyer) said he was “uncomfortable” with taking out Omar.  Omar remains in hiding with a $10M bounty on his one-eyed head.   I’m sure if Sun Tzu was presented with the possibility of taking out one of his key enemy leaders in one shot, he wouldn’t be uncomfortable with it at all.

And we wonder why the war has taken as long as it has…

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Written by The Rabid Conservative

April 23, 2009 at 9:29 am

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