Paul Scharre’s new book on autonomous weapons begins with an account of an incident he experienced while on patrol as a US Army Ranger in Afghanistan in 2004. A young girl of five or six years old herding a couple of goats approached Scharre’s team while they were taking cover in the mountains. As she looped around them, frequently glancing towards them, they realised she had a radio and was reporting their position, acting as a spotter for Taliban fighters.
What should the soldiers do? According to the laws of war, the girl was an enemy combatant whom they were allowed to shoot. If a person is participating in hostilities, regardless of their age, they are a lawful target for engagement.
Scharre and his squad had no doubt that it would have been quite wrong to kill the little girl, and so they moved away and regrouped in a safer area. But what would a machine have done in their place? If it had been programmed to kill enemy combatants lawfully, it would have attacked the child. The incident highlights one of the gravest concerns in the debate over whether to develop autonomous weapon systems – could a robot ever know when it is lawful to kill, but wrong to do so?
‘Army of None’ takes us into the future world of emerging weapons technology – lethal autonomous weapon systems, or ‘killer robots’, driven by artificial intelligence and able to wage war without the need for human command. Although they sound like the plot of a science fiction movie, the technology needed to build autonomous weapons already exists, and such systems are on the point of development.
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