Should Robots Ever Be Making Life-Or-Death Decisions In War?

Video: Current warfare seems ugly enough, what with the drones and Kalashnikovs. But add a dose of computerised efficiency, and the battlefield of the future could be one truly optimised — and terrifying — killing machine.

Tom Scott has a succinct and depressing look at the kind of changes we can expect to see on future battlefields, if a US Army thinkpaper is accurate. The gist goes something like this: the quantity and speed of information will overwhelm human operators, who will need to let computers handle most of the immediate decision-making in order to keep fighting.

It’s not an improbably scenario: in fact, it’s one that is already played out on very small, very particular scales. Anti-air and point defence weapons systems on US Navy ships generally have an ‘automatic’ mode, so that under intense air attack operators can hand over control to the computer and let it do the shooting.

The ethics of robotic warfare are murky at best: as Scott points out, the EU currently has a ban on any major decision (let alone who to kill) being made solely by a computer. But there’s a strong historical trend of law bending to necessity, especially where big fighting machines are involved.