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 of artificial intelligence and machine-based agency that are still many years away. However, his once phantasmagorical dilemma has become increasingly relevant to real-­life national security.

From a moral perspective, the implications of developing and employing intelligent autonomous systems are far more nuanced and complex. Similar to other military technologies that could have far-reaching impacts, autonomous systems will need to be developed and employed thoughtfully. However, autonomous systems can also cut through the fog of war, enable more accurate information, and reduce reaction time to help protect both innocent bystanders and sailors, soldiers, marines, and airmen.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work, in a speech to the CNAS Defense Forum, recently explained why autonomous systems are critical to the future of military operations. “We know that China is investing heavily in robotics and autonomy,” he said, “and the Russian Chief of the General Staff, Gerasimov, recently said that the Russian military is preparing to fight on a robotized battle field.” Indeed, Gerasimov believes that “it is possible that a fully robotized unit will be created, capable of independently conducting military operations.”

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