Military Robotics and Ethics: A World of Killer Apps

Introduction: A president arguing that his nation isn’t at war because his forces are using only robotic weapons. An arms control meeting forlornly trying to ban the development of armed autonomous robots. Criminals using tiny robotic helicopters in a jewelry heist. These are not tales from an Isaac Asimov novel; they are real events that happened within the past year.

From gunpowder to the atomic bomb to robots, history is full of weapons technologies so disruptive that they change the rules. These deadly applications, or ‘killer apps’, often begin in the military sector but have ripple effects beyond their intended uses. The Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bomb was at its core a military funded experiment to bundle the greatest explosive power into the smallest delivery package possible. But that research opened up entirely new areas of physics, revolutionized the energy industry.

What is different today is the speed with which our technology can outpace our ethical and policy responses to it. Astounding advances grab the headlines so frequently that the public has become numb to their significance — whether it is robotic planes, directed-energy weapons such as high energy lasers, or ‘electric skin’, tiny sensors that are applied to the body like tattoos.

We are “giants” when it comes to technology, but “ethical infants” when it comes to understanding its consequences, as U.S. Army general Omar Bradley remarked in 1948. Bradley was referring to nuclear research, but as the pace of technologic change takes off, that gulf — between our sophisticated inventions and our crude grasp of the consequences — continues to widen. We need to start bridging it.

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