A new Human Rights Watch report warns against fully autonomous weapons, so-called 21st-century “robot killers”. Tom Rollins argues these developments might be a “tempting ruse” but the results are always the same: civilian dead.

August 29. Samen Ahmed Ali Jaber, a Salafi imam, has recently made another sermon decrying Al-Qaida from his al-Abbas mosque in Yemen. When a group of local militants drive to see him – to threaten him, according to blogger Nasser Arrabyee – a drone strike blows them all away, Jaber and a policeman with them. Even the impartial missive from Associated Press gave the game away: “The attack was unusual in that it was not in a desert or mountain area, but an area heavily populated by civilians.”
There are plenty more stories like this one. But Jaber’s is an illuminating way-in: into why unmanned – and autonomous weapons – present such a menacing view of the future.
Unmanned systems already exist, of course, and are in use across the globe. Israel’s Iron Dome (produced by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems) operates on its own, identifying incoming rockets from the Gaza Strip before sending a target to be approved by a human controller. Supporters claim it has an 88% success rate. There is the argument that defensive weapons work better unmanned than offensive weapons – like drones. These unmanned aerial systems (UAVs) have a much worse record.
While killing suspected militants at a rate that might look good in the eyes of the post-Iraq military-industrial complex – just 2% of “high-level” targets as a percentage of total casualties, according to a NYU School of Law and Stanford University Law School report this year – drones kill civilians indiscriminately, including vocal critics of al-Qaida like Jaber, terrorise local populations and breed insurgency in their wake.
Yesterday Human Rights Watch released its report condemning fully autonomous weapons. “Fully autonomous weapons have the potential to increase harm,” it claims. “They would be unable to meet basic principles of international humanitarian law,” undercutting “non-legal safeguards that protect civilians…they would present obstacles to accountability for any casualties that occur.”
Today’s drone warfare is just the start. “Predators are merely the first generation,” Peter W. Singer, Director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative, told a National Security sub-committee in 2010. “The equivalent of the Model T Ford or the Wright Brothers’ Flyer.” The worrying progression of “fully autonomous weapons” – weapons with less human control, and eventually, none at all – is no longer the preserve of bad sci-fi films. Some weapons experts believe they could become a reality in the next 20-30 years.
So what are we actually talking about? The US Department of Defense’s Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap FY2011-2036 paints a number of “vignettes” for the reader, imagining independent drones able to carry out surveillance before considering and identifying threats, then giving ‘em hell accordingly. Or, as US engineers have it, robots that could “hunt, identify and kill the enemy based on calculations made by software, not decisions made by humans.”
From a military perspective, unmanned weapons are a tempting ruse. Forget boots-on-the-ground, this is liberal warfare in the Obama age. Non-committal attacks from a distance, safe and sound. No more US soldiers walking into ambushes in terrain their enemy always knows best. No more Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. Welcome to the 21st-century: killer robots run the show.
It’s easy to be alarmist about a weapons technology that turns our most futuristic sci-fi fantasies into steely flesh. And while it is true fully autonomous weapons would save soldiers’ lives – or keep more of them away from the battlefield, at least – what would be the cost? The civilians our armies claim they are protecting.
For one, it seems unlikely that the first military applications of new artificial intelligence (AI) would comply with international law. And how would you have to test this AI? Well there’s desert research facilities for this kind of thing, yes, but the generals and presidents wouldn’t get a feel for the thing until they’d have tried it on human guinea pigs. Like in the Middle East. The West’s very own desert research facility. Live ammunition and live targets.
Considerations like accountability, the ins-and-outs of international law or “human emotion” might sound like flowery protest placardism (a million miles from Pentagonese realpolitik) but it’s vital when interrogating new weaponry. A drone under the control of a soldier has a better chance of detecting an individual’s emotions, intentions or motivations on the ground. (Even then we know it’s far from perfect: over 3,000 US drone strike casualties, it’s thought the majority are civilian.) A fully autonomous drone would not have a clue, amoral as well as artificial intelligence, incapable of “distinguishing between a fearful civilian and a threatening enemy combatant”.
Take recent events in Gaza. Of the 140 people killed so far (at the time of writing), at least 50 of those were civilians, including women and children, along with nearly 1,000 people injured. That’s a 50%-plus civilian-to-combatant kill ratio in an operation led by UAVs tasked with accurately identifying “Hamas sites” and calling in air strikes. And yet these UAVs have called in strikes on international media agencies, journalists in their cars, residential buildings and civilian vehicles. Gazans are calling the drones zeenanas now – which means “whining child” in Arabic.
Technology might change how our wars look or how they’re fought but the same people are dying. Civilians; women and children. If Samen Ahmed Ali Jaber died at the hands of a human-controlled Reaper drone, how many more innocent civilians would die at the hands of a Reaper-controlled Reaper drone? When civilian casualties make up the majority of the dead in modern warfare, this should be any army’s priority in developing new technologies. Weapons genuinely “precision” in their accuracy. Ones that finally exclude civilians from the battlefield.
It’d be a start, wouldn’t it?

Tom Rollins

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