Robots, Terrorists, and Morals
Posted 9 Nov 2002 at 17:15 UTC by steve
When a car carrying six Islamic terrorists was blown up recently by a Hellfire-C
missle fired from a Predator
RQ-1A UAV, most US news
stories expressed relief and a little pride. Relief at
having 6 fewer terrorists and pride in the technology. Some non-US
stories seem more
reserved or undecided,
remains objective as usual. Despite the incident being part of a war
declared first by Al-Qaeda and then by the US, Amnesty
International and World
Socialist News still question whether the action violates
international law or moral standards. Other experts on the topic disagree.
All of this controversy is over a robot remotely controlled by
humans. What sort of reaction will we see the first time a fully
autonomous robot like the X-45 UCAV engages the
enemy? One interesting thought is that while the robot's action violated
the first of Asimov's
laws, it would have been allowed under his zeroth law. Best quote
from any of these articles: "Al-Qaeda's zealots never
thought they would be fighting American robots -- and losing." from the
To my mind the problem isn't that U.S. forces are using unmanned drones
to project U.S. military power across the globe, but that they aren't
using enough of them. If the U.S. had a militarily oriented light
armored semiautonomous robotic force (leg/wheel combo), ``Tora Bora''
type problems would be reduced in stature from a major problem to a
minor nuisance. Various hotbeds around the world could be pacified via
occupation by semi-autonomous robotic platforms hosting a combination
of the considerable technologies that the U.S. already has.
I have seen no indication that the DOD has dared to dream of
semiautonomous soldiers replacing their human counterparts on the
battlefield - I'm hoping there is a black project somewhere working on
it. (That way I don't have to start one :->)
I think it's unlikely that Asimov's laws have been violated in this
case, since I bet that this type of UAV is at best a semi-autonomous
system which isn't capable of taking high level decisions like what
vehicle to fire at. A remote human operator sitting in a leather
armchair stroking a pussycat probably pressed the destruct button in
this particular case.
It would be tempting to think of this as a landmark example of a
robotic soldier killing its human enemy, but actually semi autonomous
or even completely autonomous weapons have been around for decades in
the form of guided missiles. To me this seems like a logical
progression on preexisting technologies.
To motters point, in world war 2 the US developed a guided
missile (though never implemented) that utilized a pidgeon or
dove (i can't remember which). It worked like this: The pidgeon
had been taught to peck at the picture of a battleship. The viewport
of the rocket allowed a view of the ocean once in the vicinity of the
enemy ship, with the window broken up into 4 quadrants. The
pidgeon would peck at the ship, and the quadrant that was tapped
would register this. The rocket would then adjust accordingly. At
the time, I'm sure that this would have raised hackles - the notion
of a pidgeon selecting a target.... In any event, doesn't it seem that
there should be some guidelines or understandings developed
before we have this (semiautonomous) type of technology?
Bat Bomb, posted 11 Nov 2002 at 15:21 UTC by jeffkoenig »
From the book:
"It was a crazy way to win World War II in the Pacific - All the United
States had to do was to attach small incendiary bombs to millions of
bats and release them over Japan's major cities. As the bats went to
roost, a million fires would flare up in remote crannies of the wood
and paper buildings common throughout Japan. When their cities were
reduced to ashes, the Japanese would surely capitulate..."
If you can find this book, it is an excellent story of the development
of this weapon, written by one of the team members. It's also a fun
read, heavy on the humor. I originally bought it to prove to others
that the Bat Bomb was indeed a real project.
"Bat Bomb" by Jack Couffer, 1992. University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-
The Japanese in WWII attempted to start forest fies in the Northwest
United States during WWII.
They used balloons with incendiary devices attached, with a simple
altitude/weight dropping system to cause the payload to be dropped over
the target. Fairly low tech, and maybe would have been more successful
if it wasn't for the fact that the Northwest is really wet and soggy
for much of the year.
They may have killed or injured six people with the antipersonnel bomb
versions. But since the war was still on, the officials kept it all
I am afraid that "Al-Qaeda's zealots never thought they would be
fighting American robots - and losing." is our own wishful thinking.