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Editor’s blog – A dystopian future: drones and ‘killer robots’ creating terror

By Dean Carroll

Imagine going about your everyday life knowing that drones continually hover above your country ready to strike at any moment. The authorities insist the unmanned aerial vehicles only target terrorists, but you know from previous incidents that mistakes can be made and civilians often end up as collateral damage. Whatever the assurances coming from those in positions of power, you know that you and your family are in constant danger.

Now as an extension of this scenario, imagine a future where your country goes to war but this war is different. It is a war between fully autonomous weapons acting upon their own data and without human control. Military ‘killer robots’ without a ‘man-in-the-loop’ as Human Rights Watch campaigner Steve Goose labels them.

“Killer robots would be unable to distinguish adequately between combatants and civilians in the increasingly complex circumstances of modern battlefields, and would be unable to make proper proportionality determinations,” he says. “They would also create an accountability gap, as it would be unclear who should be held responsible for the inevitable violations of the law that would occur. Fully autonomous weapons do not yet exist, though precursors do.

“The precursors demonstrate the rapid movement toward autonomy and replacing humans on the battlefield. The United States is the most active in developing these technologies but others include China, Germany, Israel, Russia, South Korea and the United Kingdom. Sophisticated fully autonomous weapons may be fielded within 20 or 30 years, according to many experts; some of whom indicate that cruder versions could be available much sooner – in a matter of years not decades.

“Numerous military planning documents make clear that many see fully autonomous weapons as the desirable and inevitable future of warfare, at least for rich nations. With each passing day, more and more money will be ploughed into research and development of fully autonomous weapons. More investment means the more such weapons will become part of plans and doctrine for future fighting. Killer robots need to be stopped now, before it is too late and their march from science fiction to reality becomes irreversible.”

History tells us that there is never any real public debate on the rapid development of defence technology. Governments do not ask the permission of citizens to make their militaries stronger and their streets safer – or so the argument goes. Certainly with drones, the discussion is limited to a cadre of officials and politicians meeting behind closed doors.

As Stanford University scholar Professor Priya Satia confirms, there was practically no mention of the United States drone programme back during the presidential campaign – from either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. Both men viewed the technology as the best counter-terrorism tool available to America, but should they not at least tell the public why in much greater detail? Obama may have been more transparent about drones since his re-election but it has not yet constituted an open discussion with citizens.

“The dumb acceptance of drones in US public debate is not a sign of Americans’ particular indifference to ethics in war, but of the astonishing effectiveness of airpower’s ability to defuse democratic debate about unpopular military action,” Satia says. “American officials have acknowledged that drones are ideal in places where there is intense resistance to any overt American presence. The secrecy surrounding their use also ensures they provoke no political cost at home.

“The lack of media coverage of this expansion of state secrecy testifies to its success. Discreet, cheap aerial control abroad fundamentally alters democracy’s relationship to war; by making war virtually costless at home, it stifles public condemnation of the conflict.

“Pakistani officials, the former CIA station chief in Islamabad and scholars all over have repeatedly argued that local governments in these countries are crippled by the taint of tolerating the American drone presence. Drone strikes weaken forces of stability while stoking the anger that fuels terrorist movements. It hardly matters from a political point of view whether drones avoid civilian casualties; the secrecy around them, the historical memory of these societies and the impossibility of clearly identifying ‘bad guys’ in them together mean that the programme will continue to misfire.

“More worrying than the pilot’s new remoteness is the near-total remoteness of the American public that it underwrites. Drone enthusiasts openly praise the uneasiness produced by the technology’s ‘persistent stare capability’ and news reports testify to civilians’ fear of the drones. But are Americans ready to accept that they have embraced terror too?”

A sombre message from the US academic and an important question of our time for Europe and the wider world too – especially now that the European Defence Agency is to conduct a study on the feasibility of a joint military-civilian drone programme on behalf of EU member states. The only problem is, the issue is unlikely to be debated in a public arena anytime soon – at least not until it is too late because rogue states and terrorist groups have got their hands on the technology. In fact, this has already happened to a degree. A number of nations in Asia and the Middle East, with questionable human rights records, have started work on their own drone programmes. China is even said to be working on UAVs that can engage in aviation dogfights.

Of course, the next logical step on from drones is indeed autonomous weapons or to use the more inflammatory language ‘killer robots’. Perhaps now is the time to start that public debate. The alternative to some kind of international treaty or regulatory standards is chaos – not just in the skies but also on our streets. This dystopian future is coming; most people just do not know it yet.

Dean Carroll is editor of Policy Review

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