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Drones and other robots of war

by Jonny Hankins [1], 4 March 2010

Recently the press has been full of articles addressing the legality or illegality of the military use of unmanned drone aircraft in the war against terror. Their use as well as the use of other human controlled robot weaponry presents a series of ethical, moral, technical and legal problems, often more down to the way they are deployed than the actual machines themselves.

The Bassetti Foundation has been variously addressing the problem of human controlled robot use and robot autonomy in warfare for some years now. Through various postings the ethical problems provoked by the changing nature of warfare have been addressed. The following give a flavour of the discussion to date.

In 2008 Jeff Ubois posted the transcription of an interview with Dr. Ronald Arkin, [2] a Professor in the College of Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Director of the Mobile Robot Laboratory, in which he addresses various ethical aspects of robotics, especially those used in war. Amongst other things he discusses embedding ethical codes in technical systems and how practitioners can effectively engage their colleagues in discussions about the ethical aspects of research and engineering.

Later that year Fiorella Operto [3]published an article [4]addressing the problem of autonomous warfare robot use in which she calls for 'an immediate need for a serious international debate based on serious and correct information that would lead to the regulation of these non conventional arms, as has already happened with atomic, biological and chemical weapons'. Jonny Hankins later went on to interview her and publish a transcript of our discussion [5] in which she raised some of the ethical problems involved in robot advancement.

In 2009 Hankins followed up with a posting entitled Will Machines Outsmart Humans? [6] In this piece he looked at several articles that address amongst other things the ethical and legal implications of current robot warfare technology.

This was in turn followed up by the publication by Tommaso Correale Santacroce of an article about The Springer Handbook of Robotics [7]. More recently he followed up with an article entitled 'And if a robot' [8]that features an interesting and thought provoking video (in English) and a link to the Globalsecurity.org website [9]that offers an explanation of the current state of play in robotics warfare.

For a lighter perspective see the posting on Richard G Epstein's plays [10] that treat the subject. The Case Of The Killer Robot touches on the theme of malfunction in robot technology, quite poignant as we learn that the US military had to shoot down one of its drne aircraft recently as it went out of control.

But returning to the present, a lot of sites and newspapers are reporting upon criticisms raised against the current US policy regarding Drone unmanned aircraft use, and more particularly their use in targetted executions in Pakistan. The number of these strikes has dramatically risen under the Obama administration with one report claiming that already this year (2010) Obama has authorized more targetted killings than Bush did during the last 3 years of his administration.

CNN have an article entitled How Robot Drones Revolutionized The Face Of Warfare [11] that discusses drone use and their advantages in the field. There is also a video showing actual drone strikes and telling the story of a fighter pilot who lives and fights from his home town in Nevada. Rather TV in its line the article demands a critical reading as it is rather triumphal and non critical in its tone.

In January The Wall Street Journal published an article entitled The Drone Wars [12], outling successes and ground gained in the war on terror through their use, but also highlighting the fact that their use is not without cricicism. The argument is that the way they are being used may contravine international law. This article, as with most of the others, cites a report written by The U.N. Human Rights Council's investigator on extrajudicial executions Philip Alston. Alston argues that the targetting of suspects by drone and then their execution may be a contravention of International law.

In a report delivered to the UN General Assembly's Third Committee, [13] Alston stated that "While there may be circumstances in which the use of such techniques is consistent with applicable international law, this can only be determined in light of information about the legal basis on which particular individuals have been targeted, the measures taken to ensure conformity with the international humanitarian law principles of discrimination, proportionality, necessity and precaution, and the steps taken retrospectively to assess compliance in practice,"

He also called for US authorities to be more open about their program stating that "Otherwise you have the really problematic bottom line, which is that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is running a program that is killing a significant number of people, and there is absolutely no accountability in terms of the relevant international law."

And in here lies one of the problems, the program is run by the CIA and not the military, and this means that it is very difficult to get information or hold anyone accountable.

The Democracynow website [14] features an interview with Aston both in video and written form in which he explains the criteria for what he sees as a possible legal use of drone technology and an outline of what he sees as the current policy's failings.

New Yorker offers a much more in depth and critical report. Jane Mayer has 2 postings on the subject. [15]
In her articles [16] she assesses the risks posed by the CIA covert Drone program including referance to an interview with Phiip Alston about his work and reactions to his report.

She explains that there are 2 parallel drone programs, the military version that is publicly acknowledged and that of the CIA. The CIA programme operates in places such as Yemen and pakistan, with the unpublicized consent of these countries, and involves the targetted killings of terror suspects. One of the problems that she addresses is the nonaccountablity of the projects. No data is available about where these projects operate, who is in charge or how many people have been killed. Secrecy also surrounds the matter of target selection including the criteria upon which people are inserted into the kill lists. She argues that in order to sweeten the respective governments people may be added to the list at their request. This factor could lead the USA into fighting internal conflicts and possibly even eliminating those in opposition to the governments in question.

Another issue is that these drones are flown directly from the USA by CIA employees or even contract workers. This creates a difference in the perception of war as well as associated psychological and responsibility problems as it could lead towards the idea of a cost free war (at least in terms of lives lost) .

The author sites some interesting figures in an example of drone use in a particular targetted assasination case. In trying to kill Baitullah Mehsud in Waziristan the US launched 16 drone missile strikes over 14 months killing an estimated 207 to 321 people before getting their man.

Another issue worthy of reflection is the appearance of CIA video of drone executions [17]on youtube. You can watch the execution of Osama Bin Ladin's son amongst others from the comfort of your laptop. On a personal note however you can also see how people could be mistakenly identified at a distance of 5000 km.

The Governmentexecutive.com website contains an article entitled Civil liberties group probes legal basis for drone attacks [18] by Katherine McIntire Peters. The article explains that The American Civil Liberties Union have filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the CIA and the Defense, Justice and State departments seeking the legal justification for targeted killings using armed drones. Some of the problems noted above such as the fact that the aircraft are not being operated by military personnel, but by civil personnel and the lack of accountability are addressed. There is also a TV interview [19] in which a spokesperson explains the motivation for their actions.

As we see from a recent article [20] in the British newspaper The Guardian (and comments) [21] these problems are not however confined to the United States. The article states that the RAF are increasingly relying on Drone use in their war in Afghanistan but goes on to outline some of the legal issues raised but also some of the ethical and technical drawbacks of their use.

(photo: drone helicopter [22]- by Illetirres from Flickr)

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Links in this document:

  1. 1] http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/schedabiografica/Jonny Hankins
  2. 2] http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/en/ubois/2008/01/dr_ronald_arkin_on_roboethics.html
  3. 3] http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/en/pages/2008/02/fiorella_operto.html
  4. 4] http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/en/focus/2008/05/robotics_a_new_science_1.html
  5. 5] http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/en/focus/2008/02/robotics_a_new_science.html
  6. 6] http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/it/rassegna/2009/08/will_machines_outsmart_humans.html
  7. 7] http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/en/roboethics/2009/03/springer_handbook_of_robotics.html
  8. 8] http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/it/rassegna/2009/05/e_se_il_robot.html
  9. 9] http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/ground/fcs.htm
  10. 10] http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/it/segnalazioni/2009/08/a_little_ethical_light_reading.html
  11. 11] http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/americas/07/23/wus.warfare.remote.uav/index.html
  12. 12] http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704130904574644632368664254.html
  13. 13] http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=32764&Cr=alston&Cr1=
  14. 14] http://www.democracynow.org/2009/10/28/un_special_rapporteur_on_extrajudicial_killings
  15. 15] http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/10/26/091026fa_fact_mayer
  16. 16] http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2009/10/jane-mayer-predators-drones-pakistan.html
  17. 17] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PjR8v1njsg
  18. 18] http://www.govexec.com/story_page.cfm?filepath=/dailyfed/0110/011410kp1.htm&oref=search
  19. 19] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qoV_aYlE-aY
  20. 20] http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/feb/07/raf-drones-afghanistan
  21. 21] http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/feb/08/afghanistan-drones-defence-killing
  22. 22] http://www.flickr.com/photos/illetirres/53062344/
CC Creative Commons - some rights reserved.
photo by Illetirres from Flickr
See also: Roboethics blog
Articles by:  Jonny Hankins
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