FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Rise of the Killer Robot

“As companies building the technologies in artificial intelligence and robotics that may be repurposed to develop autonomous weapons, we feel especially responsible in raising this alarm.”

Open Letter to the UN on Autonomous technology, August 2017

Melbourne.

Do you leave the gruesome task of killing, pulverising and maiming to robots?  The US Defence Department gave a portion of its report Unmanned Systems Safety Guide for DOD Acquisition (2007) to the possibility of designing functional unmanned weapons systems. Other defence departments, including the UK Ministry of Defence, also see the removal of the human element in the drone killing mechanism as a distinct possibility.

It is these points troubling those at the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Melbourne, which opened with a letter authored and signed by 116 figures known for their prowess in the field of robotic and artificial intelligence.  Among the penning luminaries were Elon Musk, taking time out from some of his more boyish endeavours to get serious.  Serious, that is, about humanity.

Reading the words of the open note, oddly titled “An Open Letter to the United Nations Convention on Certain Chemical Weapons” (since when are conventions recipients?) is to be cast back into an aspirational idyll, thrown into archives of hope that humanity’s insatiable appetite for killing itself might be curbed:

 “Once developed, lethal autonomous weapons will permit armed conflict to be fought on a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend.  These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways.”[1]

For the artificial intelligence sage Toby Walsh, a salient figure behind the note and the 2015 open letter which first urged the need to stop “killer robots”, such weapons were as revolutionary as any since the advent of nuclear weaponry.[2]  Be aware of “stupid technologies” or, as he puts it, the stupid variant of artificial intelligence.

A central point to bringing robots into the old fray of battle is the notion that machines will be used to target other machines.  It is the view of John Canning of the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division. The people, in other words, are sparred the misfortune of death – except the clever ones who wish to continue targeting each other – while “dumb” robots are themselves neutralised or destroyed by other, similarly disposed weapon systems.

Even more direct is Ronald Arkin, who insists that robots can better soldiers in the business of warfare at first instance while also being “more humane in the battlefield than humans.”  The idea of a humane machine would surely be a misnomer, but not for Arkin, who contends that robotic platforms may well have the “ability to better adhere to the Laws of War than most soldiers possibly can.”[3]

Both Arkin and Canning are merely fumbling over notions already hit upon by Isaac Asimov in 1942.  Robots, he outlined in a series of robot laws in the short story “Runaround” would not injure human beings, had to obey orders given by humans, except when in conflict with the first law, and had to protect their own existence, as long as neither conflicted with the first two laws.  Giddy stuff indeed.

These are not points being cheered on by Musk and Co.  At the beginning of an automated robotic creature is a potential human operator; and at its end, another human, with a moral and ethical dimension of such dire consequence that prohibition is the only safe choice.

The obvious point, seemingly missed by these figures, is that the nature of automated killing, the technological distance between the trigger puller and the destroyed target, is an inexorable process that continues the alienation of humans from the technology they use.

“We do not have long to act,” comes the cry.  “Once this Pandora’s Box is opened, it will be hard to close.”  But this box was prized open with each technological mastery, with each effort to design a more fiendishly murderous weapon.  The only limit arguably in place with each discovery (chemical and bacteriological weapons; carpet bombing; nuclear weapons) was the not-so-reliable human agent ultimately behind using such weapons.

The elimination of pathos, the flesh and blood link between noble combatants, was already underway in the last days of George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. To win the battle, the machine imperative became irresistible. It was only a matter of time before the machine absorbed the human imperative, becoming its near sci-fi substitute.

Human stupidity – in the making and misuse of technologies – is a proven fact, and will buck any legislative or regulatory trend.  Some in the AI fraternity prefer to think about it in terms of what happens if the unscrupulous get hold of such things, that the line can be drawn underneath the inconceivably horrid. But even such a figure as technology investor Roger McNamee has to concede, “bad things are already happening.”[4]

Ultimately, it still takes human agency to create the lethal machinery, to imbue the industrial killing complex with its brutish character. For that very reason, there will be those who think that it is about time machines are given their go.  Let the robots, in short, sort out the mess made by human agents.  But taking humans out of the business of killing would be a form of self-inflicted neutering.  Killing, for all its critics, remains a true human pursuit, the sort of fun some will resent surrendering to the machine.

 

Notes.

[1] https://www.dropbox.com/

[2] http://www.smh.com.au/

[3] https://www.cc.gatech.edu/

[4] https://www.cnbc.com/

More articles by:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

July 17, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Trump & The Big Bad Bugs
Robert Hunziker
Trump Kills Science, Nature Strikes Back
John Grant
The Politics of Cruelty
Kenneth Surin
Calculated Buffoonery: Trump in the UK
Binoy Kampmark
Helsinki Theatrics: Trump Meets Putin
Patrick Bond
BRICS From Above, Seen Critically From Below
Jim Kavanagh
Fighting Fake Stories: The New Yorker, Israel and Obama
Daniel Falcone
Chomsky on the Trump NATO Ruse
W. T. Whitney
Oil Underground in Neuquén, Argentina – and a New US Military Base There
Doug Rawlings
Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” was Nominated for an Emmy, Does It Deserve It?
Rajan Menon
The United States of Inequality
Thomas Knapp
Have Mueller and Rosenstein Finally Gone Too Far?
Cesar Chelala
An Insatiable Salesman
Dean Baker
Truth, Trump and the Washington Post
Mel Gurtov
Human Rights Trumped
Binoy Kampmark
Putin’s Football Gambit: How the World Cup Paid Off
July 16, 2018
Sheldon Richman
Trump Turns to Gaza as Middle East Deal of the Century Collapses
Charles Pierson
Kirstjen Nielsen Just Wants to Protect You
Brett Wilkins
The Lydda Death March and the Israeli State of Denial
Patrick Cockburn
Trump Knows That the US Can Exercise More Power in a UK Weakened by Brexit
Robert Fisk
The Fisherman of Sarajevo Told Tales Past Wars and Wars to Come
Gary Leupp
When Did Russia Become an Adversary?
Uri Avnery
“Not Enough!”
Dave Lindorff
Undermining Trump-Putin Summit Means Promoting War
Manuel E. Yepe
World Trade War Has Begun
Binoy Kampmark
Trump Stomps Britain
Wim Laven
The Best Deals are the Deals that Develop Peace
Kary Love
Can We Learn from Heinrich Himmler’s Daughter? Should We?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Franklin Lamb, Requiescat in Pace
Weekend Edition
July 13, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Brian Cloughley
Lessons That Should Have Been Learned From NATO’s Destruction of Libya
Paul Street
Time to Stop Playing “Simon Says” with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: In the Land of Formula and Honey
Aidan O'Brien
Ireland’s Intellectuals Bow to the Queen of Chaos 
Michael Collins
The Affirmative Action Silo
Andrew Levine
Tipping Points
Geoff Dutton
Fair and Balanced Opinion at the New York Times
Ajamu Baraka
Cultural and Ideological Struggle in the US: a Final Comment on Ocasio-Cortez
David Rosen
The New McCarthyism: Is the Electric Chair Next for the Left?
Ken Levy
The McConnell Rule: Nasty, Brutish, and Unconstitutional
George Wuerthner
The Awful Truth About the Hammonds
Robert Fisk
Will Those Killed by NATO 19 Years Ago in Serbia Ever Get Justice?
Robert Hunziker
Three Climatic Monsters with Asteroid Impact
Ramzy Baroud
Europe’s Iron Curtain: The Refugee Crisis is about to Worsen
Nick Pemberton
A Letter For Scarlett JoManDaughter
Marilyn Garson
Netanyahu’s War on Transcendence 
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail