Brave New War: What are the ethical and legal considerations of using killer robots?
The increasing use of unmanned aerial vehicles—drone aircraft—capable of lethal force, by the United States and other countries around the world, has made more urgent a debate over the ethics, law, and regulation of autonomous weapons systems.
Today’s weapons-carrying drones are not “autonomous”—capable of acting in real-time through their own programmed decision-making—but instead are controlled in real-time by humans. Technological advances and perceptions of strategic and operational advantage, however, are propelling research and development (R&D) toward genuinely autonomous weapons systems. The design and engineering underlying this R&D necessarily includes not only technical material considerations, but also assumptions about how, where, and why such systems will be used—and these include fundamental legal and ethical considerations about what constitutes a lawful weapon and its lawful use.
Debates over the legitimacy of particular weapons or their legitimate use go back to the beginnings of the laws and ethics of war. In some cases, legal prohibitions on the weapon system as such eroded, as happened with submarines and airplanes, and what survived was a set of legal rules for the use of the new weapon. In other cases, such as the ban on use of poison gas, legal prohibitions take hold.
Where in this long history of new weapons and their ethical and legal regulation will autonomous robotic weapons fit? What are the features of autonomous robotic weapons that raise ethical and legal concerns? And how should they be addressed, as a matter of law and policy?