The Politics of Killer Robots: Experts Consider Political, Legal and Ethical Implications of Drones and Other Robotic Weapons at Pace University Symposium
Not all conduct is justified in war. Centuries of tradition – from religious texts to chivalry and honor codes to modern international humanitarian and human rights law – have limited what weapons armed groups can use, who and what they can target and where and when they may fight. Each new innovation in military technologies and techniques strains the old limits and prompts new conversations about the norms of war.
Today, there is vigorous debate among scholars, activists, soldiers and journalists about how to govern the use of robotic weapons systems like aerial drones, in order to limit civilian casualties and avoid undermining global regulations on the use of violence.
On 5 June, scholars from Pace University and beyond joined this debate with a ‘Robotic Weapons Control Symposium’ at the Downtown Campus, organized by the Political Science department in the Dyson College of Arts and Sciences, funded by a $7,500 Thinkfinity Grant from Verizon Foundation, in partnership with Pace University’s Center for Teaching Learning and Technology.
“We are on the cusp of a technological revolution in the way wars are waged,” said Dr. Matthew Bolton, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Pace University and organizer of the symposium. “Intellectuals have a responsibility to contribute to conversations about how we will reinterpret and renew traditional constraints on killing for a digital age.”
The conference drew together around 20 thinkers from a variety of disciplines, including robotics, computer science, political science, philosophy, physics and the law. Presenters included a mix of Pace University professors and students from various schools and departments, as well as participants from the New School, NYU, Princeton, Carnegie Mellon, University of Denver, Sheffield University in the UK and Berlin School of Mind and Brain, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin in Germany.
Participants considered three key questions:
- What are the ways that robotics is changing weapons technology?
- What will be the military, political, ethical and humanitarian impacts of the growing roboticization of warfare?
- What, if any, legal and normative restrictions should be placed on armed robots?
The conference started with an introduction to robotic ethics by Dr. Illah Nourbakhsh, Professor of Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. Dr. Nourbakhsh argued that the disciplines of computer science, robotics and artificial intelligence needed to think carefully about social responsibility and the implications of their research, particularly in the context of weapons development.
“We, the practitioners of robotics need to embrace ethical analysis if we are to understand the consequences of our research decisions,” said Dr. Nourbakhsh, author of the critically-acclaimed book Robot Futures. “The technology of robotics has progress so rapidly in the last decade that researchers’ innovations are emerging in the battlefield, hospital and home without proper strategic thinking about the ethical consequences of robotic design and downstream impact.”
He was followed by a several presenters looking at different ethical questions in the context of using robotics weapons in war. Dr. Noel Sharkey, professor of artificial intelligence and robots, and professor of public engagement at the University of Sheffield, argued for a ban on the emerging class of fully-autonomous armed robots – ‘killer robots’ – which select and fire upon targets without any direct human control.
“The continued automation of killing will have disastrous consequences for humanity and we should stop it now,” said Dr. Sharkey, chair of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC), one of the organizations leading the new Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.
“Robots cannot comply with the Laws of War in discriminating civilians from combatants and they lack the reasoning necessary to make judgments about the proportional use of force. Unlike a human, they cannot be held accountable for their errors. We must not cross the line where machines are delegated the decision to kill humans. To do otherwise is both morally repugnant and unthinkable.”
The implications of fully autonomous weapons were discussed in depth with presentations by Dr. Peter Asaro of the New School, Dr. Michał Klincewicz of Humboldt University, Dr. D. Paul Benjamin of Pace University’s Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Cayman Mitchell ‘14, a Pace University undergraduate.
“Preparing for and participating in this symposium was a highlight of my undergraduate career at Pace,” said Mitchell, an honors student who studies computer science and peace and justice studies on the New York City campus. “The interdisciplinary nature of the conference was exciting because it allowed me to listen to and converse with scholars from many different fields, almost all of whom overlapped to some extent with my diverse academic interests.”
In the afternoon, participants began to explore the legal and political ramifications of the roboticization of war. Professor Thomas McDonnell of the Pace University Law School considered the legalities of the US use of armed drones to attack targets in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, while Professor Robert Wiener of the Lubin School of Business offered reflections on how Jewish law and the Golem myth might offer insights into the regulation of ‘unmanned’ weapons.
“Today’s conference was a unique and exciting opportunity to learn from a breadth of scholars engaging in this important and timely issue. It is reassuring to see so many from such diverse fields coming together on this” said Dr. Heather M. Roff, Visiting Associate Professor at the University of Denver and Research Associate at the United States Air Force Academy. “The moral, political and legal questions pertaining to the use of autonomous machines in war are extremely pressing. This symposium was extremely interesting in this respect, as it engaged each type of question from such bright scholars.”
In her presentation, Dr. Roff offered insights into how robotic weapons are reshaping the political structure of decisionmaking about military strategy. She was followed by recent Pace graduate Cassandra Stimpson ‘13, who used scapegoating theory to explain the socio-political functions of extrajudicial killings by armed drones.
“The symposium was a rapid exchange of ideas from some of the most educated and passionate on the subject of autonomous and drone warfare. I was able to contribute overarching themes in my presentation about the general inefficiency and danger of targeted killing in a technological age where this act can be done with such ease.” said Stimpson, an honors political science major and peace and justice studies minor. “To be able to interact and present ideas on a new scholarly plane was vital to my growth, and the type of event I want to continue to contribute to in the future.”
The conference concluded with an open discussion about how to take the conversation forward and communicate with the broader public, governments and armed groups about the urgency of reinvigorating humanitarian and human rights norms in digitized warfare.
“We are very grateful to Verizon Foundation and the Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology for supporting this crucial conversation, all the participants for their thought-provoking contributions and, in particular, the work of Cayman and Cassandra in arranging logistics for the conference,” said Dr. Bolton.
The Pace University Political Science Department is home to one of the most popular and fastest growing majors on the New York City campus. Capitalizing on its location in the heart of the Financial District, opposite City Hall and two express subway stops from the United Nations, the department encourages students to reflect on how power works at various levels of government and society in addressing to major local, national and global challenges. Political Science faculty and students apply their lessons outside the classroom in international policymaking processes, including on peace, security, disarmament, human rights and humanitarian issues.