Will banning “killer robots” stop robots from killing?
By looking at killer robots we are forced to address questions that are set to define the coming age of automation, artificial intelligence and robotics.1
A University at Buffalo research team has published a paper that questions how, as a society, we can move forward with things like autonomous weapons or “killer robots”. The team suggests that this rush to ban and demonize “killer robots” is only a temporary solution. The challenge they put forth is actually understanding the reality of the situation — that society is entering into a situation where systems like these have and will become possible.Yet, the idea of “killer robots” is nothing new. The concept has been told in classic stories or films such as “The Terminator” and the original Star Trek television series’ “The Doomsday Machine,” yet the idea of fully autonomous weapons acting independently of any human agency is not the exclusive license of science fiction writers.
Killer robots have a Pentagon budget line and a group of non-governmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch, is already working collectively to stop their development.
Governance and control of systems like killer robots needs to go beyond the end products.
“We have to deconstruct the term ‘killer robot’ into smaller cultural techniques,” says Tero Karppi, assistant professor of media study, whose paper with Marc Böhlen, UB professor of media study, and Yvette Granta, a graduate student at the university, appears in the International Journal of Cultural Studies.
“We need to go back and look at the history of machine learning, pattern recognition and predictive modeling, and how these things are conceived,” says Karppi, an expert in critical platform and software studies whose interests include automation, artificial intelligence and how these systems fail. “What are the principles and ideologies of building an automated system? What can it do?”
By looking at killer robots we are forced to address questions that are set to define the coming age of automation, artificial intelligence and robotics, he says.
“Are humans better than robots to make decisions? If not, then what separates humans from robots? When we are defining what robots are and what they do we also define what it means to be a human in this culture and this society,” Karppi says.
Any talk of killer robots sounds at first to be an exercise in fantasy, but agencies are already both working to build and trying to prevent the building of their operative foundation.
The Pentagon allocated $18 billion of its latest budget to develop systems and technologies that could form the basis of fully autonomous weapons, instruments that independently seek, identify and attack enemy combatants or targets, according to The New York Times.
A diplomatic strike in this potential theater of machine warfare came in 2012 when a group of NGOs formed “The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots,” charged with banning the development of such weapons.
But Karppi and his fellow authors argue in their paper “that there is a need to reconsider the composition of the actual threat.”
“Consider how both software and ethical systems operate on certain rules,” says Karppi. “Can we take the ethical rule-based system and code that into the software? Whose ethics do we choose? What does the software allow us to do?”
Self-driving cars operate based on the rules of the road: when to stop, turn, yield or proceed. But autonomous weapons need to distinguish between friend and foe and, perhaps most importantly, when one becomes the other, in the case of surrender, for instance.
“The distinctions between combatant and non-combatant, human and machine, life and death are not drawn by a robot,” write the authors. “While it may be the robot that pulls the trigger, the actual operation of pulling is a consequence of a vast chain of operations, processes and calculations.”
Karppi says it’s necessary to unpack two different elements in the case of killer robots.
“We shouldn’t focus on what is technologically possible,” he says. “But rather the ideological, cultural and political motivations that drive these technological developments.”