Fear of killer robots is fear of ourselves

opinion May 14, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

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We need a serious public debate about where rapid advancements in technology are taking us

Machines have always helped humans make decisions about who and when to kill. But now that their role seems very likely to be upgraded to the level of autonomy, a lot of people are sounding the alarm. The United Nations has taken serious notice and online social networks are buzzing. “Stop the killer robots”, they say. Coming from humans who have plagued the planet with weapons of mass destruction, it sounds a bit odd.
This is the kind of debate in which neither side can claim to the high ground of nobility. Machines can’t be given the “human” responsibility to decide who should live and who should die, one camp says. Life-and-death decisions can’t be made on “intelligence” alone – and the necessary morality is something too slippery for a robot to grasp. And last but not least, haven’t you watched “The Terminator”?
The other side says machines are already helping combatants find out how many children there are in an “enemy” village. Killer robots can in fact help “reduce” casualties thanks to their precision, their ability to “see” far beyond the range of human eyes and to access all necessary information before the trigger is pulled or the button pushed. And last but not least, check out the gargantuan death toll of the first and second world wars, where machines played a relatively small role.
The argument also focuses on the advantage that technologically advanced nations will enjoy. If killer robots get the green light, what next? How long before we armies of automatons take to battlefields? Haven’t you seen “Star Wars”? There’s no limit to how bad things could get if robotic and cloning technologies can be merged and the results allowed to run amok.
But a war is a war, isn’t it? How many children have been killed? How many deaths by “friendly” fire? To say we can’t use robots to fight wars is like native Americans telling the pioneers to stop using “unfair” means of combat. If the world had no war maybe it would be easier to argue against killer robots. The truth is, we humans invented warfare and no matter how hard we’ve tried, we can’t change the fact that war is about killing.
More debate on this issue is urgently needed, even though some might say it has come too early. But if you believe that what can happen will happen, wars fought by killer robots may be just a few years away. As with cloning, we can keep the most controversial consequences of robotic technology at arm’s length, but sooner or later push will come to shove. Remember, it didn’t take scientists long to go from meddling with the atom to producing an atomic bomb.
Robots lack any emotion. But whether that means they will be cruel in combat is open for debate. And to say that we should leave the job of killing to humans sounds a bit absurd. Are we saying that only we can kill? To go a bit further, are we saying humans killing humans is nobler than robots killing humans?
We have “The Terminator” but we also have “Blade Runner”, “I, Robot”, “Bicentennial Man” and countless other visions more sympathetic to robotic technology. Throughout the history of mankind, the potential of automatons – “replacement humans” – has generated both hope and fear. But, ironically enough, the optimism and pessimism reflect the good and bad that lie in human nature. We fear robots because we fear ourselves. We are hopeful about them because we believe in the good in us. So, what should we trust  – the good in us, or our dark side?