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The Morality of Robotic War

By Michael C. Horowitz and Paul Scharre

New York Times Op-Ed
May 26, 2015
Earlier this month, Avengers: Age of Ultron was released in theaters across the United States,
featuring Marvel comics superheroes battling evil robots powered by artificial intelligence and
hellbent on destroying humanity.
Sentient military machines still remain in the realm of science fiction, but some autonomous
weapons are already technically possible today. And the role of autonomy in military systems is
likely to grow as armies take advantage of the same basic technology used in self-driving cars
and household robots. Autonomous weapons are not the same as drones. A drone is remotely
piloted by a person, who makes the decision to fire its weapons. In contrast, an autonomous
weapon is one that, once activated, can select and engage targets on its own.
In mid-April, 90 countries and dozens of nongovernmental organizations met in Geneva to
discuss the challenges raised by lethal autonomous weapons, and a consortium of more than 50
NGOs called for a pre-emptive ban.
Advocates of a ban on autonomous weapons often claim that the technology today isnt good
enough to discriminate reliably between civilian and military targets, and therefore cant comply
with the laws of war. In some situations, thats true. For others, its less clear. Over 30 countries
already have automated defensive systems to shoot down rockets and missiles. They are
supervised by humans but, once activated, select and engage targets without further human input.
These systems work quite effectively and have been used without controversy for decades.
Autonomous weapons should not be banned based on the state of the technology today, but
governments must start working now to ensure that militaries use autonomous technology in a
safe and responsible manner that retains human judgment and accountability in the use of force.
Greater autonomy could even reduce casualties in war, if used in the right way. The same types
of sensors and information-processing that will enable a self-driving car to avoid hitting
pedestrians could also potentially enable a robotic weapon to avoid civilians on a battlefield. It is
entirely plausible that future sensors could distinguish accurately between a person holding a
rake and a person holding a rifle, and do it better than humans.
Precision-guided weapons, or smart bombs, have already dramatically reduced civilian
casualties in war. Air-to-ground bombs that had a 50 percent chance of landing within a half-mile
of the target during World War II are now accurate within five feet. This guidance technology has
been so instrumental in saving civilian lives that Human Rights Watch has suggested that using
unguided weapons in populated areas is a war crime.

Even if autonomous weapons could accurately discriminate and engage targets, however, they
would still raise issues of safety, responsibility and control. Autopilot systems already help
airplane pilots navigate dangerous weather conditions and reduce human error. But the same
features that make them reliable the fact that they follow their programming precisely every
time can make them brittle when used outside of their intended operating environment. The
same goes for autonomous systems operating in environments outside the bounds of their
Militaries are also unlikely to share their algorithms with competitors, raising the prospect of
unanticipated encounters between autonomous systems on the battlefield. Like the stock market
flash crash in 2010 that was exacerbated by automated high-frequency trading algorithms, a
flash war sparked by unintended interactions between autonomous systems could occur one
Most important, we must avoid a situation where the spread of autonomous weapons leads
civilian leaders and militaries to ethically dissociate themselves from the costs of war. Humans
should be making decisions about taking human lives.
If an autonomous weapon struck the wrong target, could the person who launched it deny
responsibility, pointing out that she launched the autonomous weapon, but did not choose that
specific target?
Recent debates over drones have raised similar questions. A drone operator is just as accountable
as a pilot in an airplane or a tank driver for their actions and numerous sources suggest drone
pilots do not exhibit moral detachment from war. The concern is that autonomous weapons could
lead to a situation where people no longer feel morally responsible for the use of force.
Today, if a fighter pilot launches a missile, she knows that she is responsible for it. The missile,
once released, often cant be recalled and homing missiles lock on to targets autonomously. If
the result is deemed an illegal use of force, accountability turns on whether what happened was
an unpredictable technical malfunction, or something that the pilot should have foreseen.
Autonomous weapons could complicate this in two ways: either because the weapon is so
complex that its operator doesnt know how it will behave or because the human operators feel
that it is the weapon, not themselves, doing the killing.
We must recognize that autonomous systems are machines that people operate, not independent
moral agents.
Weapons themselves do not comply with the laws of war. Weapons are used by people in ways
that comply with, or violate, the laws of war. This means that as weapons incorporate greater
autonomy, the human operator still has a responsibility to ensure that the actions he or she is
taking are lawful.
Ensuring responsibility, not just accountability, is the real challenge. Accountability is a problem
when there is an accident and it is unclear who is to blame. The real problem is that a

responsibility vacuum might emerge, where people are being killed by autonomous weapons but
no person is clearly responsible for the killing.
This could occur if bad training or poor system design led the operator to misunderstand the
weapon. It also could happen if the system itself exhibits surprising behavior in a real-world
environment that even the designers couldnt have anticipated. In that case, it would be hard to
blame the engineer. It could be that those who tested the weapons failed to anticipate that
situation. Or it could be that the real world is simply too complex to foresee every problem.
In 2003, the United States Patriot air-defense system, which incorporates a high degree of
autonomy, shot down two friendly aircraft. Ultimately, no one was held responsible. Partly, this
was because the friendly-fire casualties resulted from poor operator training, complex system
design, and a real-world environment that wasnt anticipated.
Stopping weapons from having more intelligence will not solve these problems. Its how we use
the technology that matters.
Humans must ultimately bear moral responsibility and face the horror of war squarely not
outsource it to machines. And people must be able to remain in control of a weapon and manage
its behavior. We cannot have weapons that are intrinsically uncontrollable or wildly
unpredictable. After you fire a bullet, you cant take it back, but its trajectory is predictable. The
key is to ensure that future weapons that behave like self-steering bullets do not run amok. They
should have enough autonomy to complete the approved mission and nothing more. And
armies must ensure that operators are confident they are taking lawful action, given what they
know about the weapons capabilities, the target and the context.
Weapons with greater autonomy could mean more accuracy and fewer civilian casualties. The
appropriate response is not to forgo potentially useful technology, but instead to understand
where human judgment is still required, regardless of how advanced the technology becomes.
Michael C. Horowitz, an associate professor of political science at the University of
Pennsylvania, and Paul Scharre, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security,
direct the centers Ethical Autonomy Project.