The Future of … Autonomous Warfare

Autonomous warfare …  A lesson in science fiction or near reality?



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    The Future of … Autonomous Warfare

    The Future of … Autonomous Warfare

    Autonomous Warfare: We’re Looking for a Few Good Robots

    Since the invention of the bow and arrow some 5,000 years ago, adversaries have always sought to lengthen the distance from which they could inflict damage to one another. Autonomous warfare represents the penultimate in achieving this goal, creating unimaginable distance between combatants, and even potentially removing humans from the battlefield entirely.

    The New Arms Race

    Under the umbrella term of “autonomous warfare” there is a distinction between more narrow capabilities, where a machine is used to carry out specific tasks that it can do far better than a human, and more advanced capabilities (largely still in the R&D stage), which will be able to perform the full range of human intellectual tasks, such as the ability to reason, plan, solve problems and learn by doing.

    The present state of autonomous warfare mostly involves technology whose actions are supervised by humans, like that of military drones or South Korea’s robotic sentry gun that guards the DMZ separating the Koreas. An exception is Israel’s HARPY system, which is a fully automated, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that detects, attacks and destroys radar emitters (e.g., surface-to-air missiles [SAM],  radar sites) without human intervention.

    It is the near future where science fiction morphs into reality. Here are some examples of possible future autonomous weapons:

    • An armed ground robot being developed by Russia to counter NATO tanks
    • An unmanned ship that hunts enemy submarines is being developed by the U.S.
    • Small reconnaissance devices from the U.S. to assist soldiers in urban warfare, with the eventual objective of arming them.

    Autonomous Warfare: What is it Good For?

    The debate is already underway as to whether autonomous warfare represents a smarter, less error-prone way to conduct wars or if it’s a dangerous gateway to more conflict.

    The technologies envisioned are anticipated to reduce human casualties, lower the costs of waging war and increase the effectiveness of military actions (robots don’t get tired). Advocates of the technology argue that autonomous warfare is a better ethical choice because greater accuracy can reduce civilian casualties and machines are not subject to human emotions, like fear, revenge or fatigue, which can lead to unnecessary deaths or bad behaviors.

    Those who oppose autonomous weaponry believe that it may not have the requisite capability to make accurate target identification or the ability to make decisions regarding use of proportional force. They argue that discerning a citizen from a combatant is difficult enough for humans, making it doubtful that machines will be better. Another concern is whether anyone can be held accountable when autonomous weapons make mistakes. This ambiguity in accountability can become very dangerous indeed in warfare.

    As advances in technology allow for new paths and trends in the future, consideration must always be given to not only the good that can come of it, but possible drawbacks.  With proper research and thought, however, the potential is limitless.

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