US killer robot policy: Full speed ahead
In November 2012, United States Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter signed directive 3000.09, establishing policy for the “design, development, acquisition, testing, fielding, and … application of lethal or non-lethal, kinetic or non-kinetic, force by autonomous or semi-autonomous weapon systems.” Without fanfare, the world had its first openly declared national policy for killer robots.
The policy has been widely misperceived as one of caution. According to one account, the directive promises that a human will always decide when a robot kills another human. Others even read it as imposing a 10-year moratorium to allow for discussion of ethics and safeguards. However, as a Defense Department spokesman confirmed for me, the 10-year expiration date is routine for such directives, and the policy itself is “not a moratorium on anything.”
A careful reading of the directive finds that it lists some broad and imprecise criteria and requires senior officials to certify that these criteria have been met if systems are intended to target and kill people by machine decision alone. But it fully supports developing, testing, and using the technology, without delay. Far from applying the brakes, the policy in effect overrides longstanding resistance within the military, establishes a framework for managing legal, ethical, and technical concerns, and signals to developers and vendors that the Pentagon is serious about autonomous weapons.
Did soldiers ask for killer robots? In the years before this new policy was announced, spokesmen routinely denied that the US military would even consider lethal autonomy for machines. Over the past year, speaking for themselves, someretired and even active duty officers have written passionately against both autonomous weapons and the overuse of remotely operated drones. In May 2013, the first nationwide poll ever taken on this topic found that Americans opposed to autonomous weapons outnumbered supporters by two to one. Strikingly, the closer people were to the military—family, former military, or active duty—the more likely they were to strongly oppose autonomous weapons and support efforts to ban them.
Since the 1990s, the military has exhibited what autonomy proponent Barry Watts has called “a cultural disinclination to turn attack decisions over to software algorithms.” Legacy weapons such as land and sea mines have been deemphasized and some futuristic programs canceled—or altered to provide greater capabilities for human control. Most notably, the Army’s Future Combat Systems program, which was to include a variety of networked drones and robots at an eventual cost estimated as high as $300 billion, was cancelled in 2009, with $16 billion already spent.
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