One of the first decisions Hillary Clinton will face as president is whether to continue funding development of automated weapons, which are weapons that think on their own, selecting targets and firing their payload without the intervention of humans once they have programmed the mission into the weapon. Kind of like the Terminator of movie fame, although defense officials go out of their way to explicitly deny that analogy.
These weapons are as horrifying in their own right as germ, chemical and nuclear weapons, and more prone to misuse or unintentional use. We can anticipate that decision-making weapons will be as susceptible to bugs, hacking and programming errors as other sophisticated systems based on computer technologies, such as bank databases, credit card companies, government servers, clouds and the Internet. A robot could turn on us, kill the wrong target or mindlessly start slaughtering innocents.
There is also the moral issue of agency. The very thing that makes automated weapons so attractive—we can send them into battle instead of live soldiers—also underlies the essential immorality of using robots to kill other humans. It’s so easy to kill an animated figure on a screen in a video game. And then another, and then another, each of them so realistic in their detail that they could almost be human. Pretty soon you’ve knocked off hundreds of imaginary people. Not so easy, though, for most of us to pull a trigger, knowing that a bullet will rip through heart of someone standing ten feet away and end their existence. Perhaps we instinctively empathize with the victim and fear for our own lives. Or maybe most of us kill with difficulty because the taboo against killing is so strongly instilled in us, that moral sense that taking the life of another human being is wrong, sinful?
The problem with all advanced military technologies is that they turn war into a video game, and by doing so distance the possessors of the technology from their adversaries. Whether the attack is by conventional bomber, missile, drone or the decision-making robot weapons now under development, the technology turns the enemy into video images. Remote warfare dehumanizes the enemy and makes it easier to kill lots of them without giving it a thought. The bombardier doesn’t see the victims below, or if he can, they look like specks. The operator of the drone is even farther away from his intended victims. The operator of robots even more so.
Once we have robot weapons that are allowed to think and act independently, the next logical step will be to provide them with nuclear capabilities. I can only imagine the horrors that we will be able to inflict on others combining these two apocalyptic weapons, but I’m guessing that a future civilization from another planet will label the development of automated weapons with nuclear capabilities as the beginning of Earth’s final extinction event.
Moral and safety considerations aside, there is also the issue of cost. Lots of pundits like to deny it, but one of the primary reasons the United States economy thrived during the 1990s was the peace dividend we received at the end of the cold war. Just like the money that the Obama Administration proposes to spend modernizing our nuclear weapons, the funds to develop automated weapons could better be used to fund public education, mass transit, alternative fuel, medical research and other pressing needs.
As soon as one proposes not developing a new weapon or military technology, apologists for the military-industrial complex (a Republican president’s phraseology) always invoke the fear that other countries will develop it first, and automated weapons are no exception. The argument that we have to do it before others is fallacious because there is another way: to negotiate a treaty banning all development of these monstrous weapons of mass destruction. The central factor in what I believe will be an easy international agreement to reach is the asymmetry in resources that favors the United States. Only China could keep up with us in spending if we decided to make a major “moonshot” push to develop Terminator-like weaponry. But China faces tremendous environmental and developmental problems. The Chinese also seem usually to prefer to compete economically and culturally, and would likely welcome a treaty banning automated weapons.
In the course of a little over one hundred years, humans have developed four apocalyptic weapons of mass destruction: germ warfare, chemical warfare, nuclear warfare and now automated weapons. Thankfully, we have had the will to outlaw two of these terrible scourges. Let’s hope that Hillary makes it three out of four by vetoing the further development of robotized weapons, and then starts working on ending nuclear weapons.