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In Defense of Killer Robots

Written by Amelie Theussen, Ph.D. Candidate at Center for War Studies

There is no end in sight in the debate surrounding the development and use of fully autonomous weapons systems, so-called “killer robots”. Since 2013, an international coalition of various NGOs campaigns have worked to achieve a preemptive global ban on killer robots in all aspects – their development, production, and use. In her latest op-ed Rosa Brooks, professor of law at Georgetown University and former counselor to the Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy, takes a passionate stand in defense of those killer robots. 

First of all she points out that the perceived nightmare of fully autonomous weapons systems is not quite reality yet; that “today, even our most advanced weapons technologies still require humans in the loop”. However, technological development might change this in the future, which makes debating killer robots, their advantages as well as flaws, necessary. 

While many criticize a robot’s incapability to distinguish between civilians and combatants and argue that, when robots make decisions over life and death, a fundamental moral line is crossed which in essence jeopardizes human dignity, Brooks argues that “computers will be far better than human beings at complying with international humanitarian law”. Where we humans panic, overlook important details, and are able to process only a fraction of information in any given situation, “computers, in contrast, are excellent in crisis and combat situations”. Where we humans make mistakes, computers are exceptionally good at processing vast amounts of information and rapidly applying the appropriate rules. It seems that computers make better judgments, being less affected by the fog of war. 

Brooks asks “if it turns out, as it may, that machines are better than people at applying the principles of international humanitarian law, we should be asking an entirely different questions: Might there be a legal and ethical obligation to use ‘killer robots’ in lieu of – well, ‘killer humans’?”

Could it really be that employing killer robots in future wars would be the more ethical solution, resulting in more obedience to the laws of war? 

Rosa Brooks’ entire piece In Defense of Killer Robots can be found at Foreign Policy (Subscription required).

And if you are interested in reading more about killer robots and the opportunities and threats they pose, you can check out Foreign Policy’s Related Stories under Brooks’ article, e.g. Bonnie Docherty’s article The Trouble with Killer Robots, and the homepage of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots