On The Atlantic, Brian Fung looks at the eventual rise of autonomous drones, machines that will require no pilot and will use on-board computers to decide when it is appropriate to kill a person. Unethical as that may sound, Brian argues that these drones are not that different from the ones that are currently flying around right now.
Such machines are worth worrying about not because of the prospect we'll suffer some Terminator-style robot uprising, but because in the next few decades we'll need to make some extremely difficult choices about when it's okay for a computer to end a human life. The ongoing debate over whether pilot-controlled drones are a legitimate instrument of violence is contentious enough already without the added problem of artificial intelligence and remote accountability.
Nothing is inevitable, but over the next few decades, it'll be very hard to avoid the moment when autonomous drones make their way to the battlefield. So long as there exists a military incentive to limit risk and enhance lethality -- and so long as commanders control procurement -- the temptation to move toward autonomous drones will be irresistible. On logistical grounds alone, robots that can swarm and operate semi-independently of humans represent huge cost savings -- aside from the occasional firmware patch and other maintenance, robots don't need food, health-care, or retirement benefits. A sophisticated drone programmed to make the same choices as its human counterpart could also eliminate errors in accuracy brought on by weather, fear, and other distractions.
The idea that a machine could exhibit the moral and emotional complexity of a human seems laughable -- at least right now. Our relationship to computers as tools has conditioned us to view remote-piloted drones and fully autonomous drones as two distinct phenomena. But perhaps there's really less of a divide there than we think. What if this is simply the constructed product of our biases talking? In fact, both technically and ethically, fully autonomous drones may not be that different from the ones we use now.
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