Automated War

How to Think About Intelligent Autonomous Systems in the Military

Afghan residents look at a robot that is searching for IEDs (improvised explosive devices) during a road clearance patrol by the U.S. army in Logar province, eastern Afghanistan November 23, 2011. Umit Bektas / Reuters

Robots in Isaac Asimov’s science fiction classic I, Robot are capable of independent thought, judgment, and action. His story begins when one overrides a direct verbal instruction and saves the life of an imperiled adult instead of an ostensibly doomed child. Some would find that choice morally reprehensible, and others would accept it because of the probabilistic outcomes; the robot determined that the child was far less likely to survive than the adult and made its own decision.

Autonomous systems are already in trusted control of many automated services in health, transportation, and digital communications. Although today their reactive duties are often narrowly defined—such as re­routing Internet traffic or forward­-collision alerts systems in automobiles—increasingly, they will be capable of robustly detecting anomalous or potentially threatening behavior with greater speed and accuracy than expert humans. Of course, Asimov’s cautionary tale is rooted in a kind

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