Robots with guns (and morals?)

Published: October 23, 2010

Fully armed robots were to be used on the streets of Iraq. PHOTO: GIZMODO.COM

Robotic warfare is here. US soldiers are killing insurgents across the world with remote controlled drones.

A worried UN investigator Christof Heyns has urged the UN to set up a panel on the ethics of robot weapons. We in Pakistan are fighting faceless machines now, they appear out of nowhere, shoot us down and disappear.

The right kind of war

Would you want a war where your sole existence depends on the decision of a machine which cannot see, hear or feel? War is supposed to have consequences that may be lost if the current trend of robotic warfare continues. When war is dehumanized and victims made faceless, death turns into a statistic. What happens when you remove humans from the battlefield? It’s time we start thinking about the question because this maybe the future of combat.

In a traditional war, one consoles oneself with the thought that no one wants it to continue. No mother wants hers son to die in the battlefield – but does the army care if one of their drones or robots is shot down? Certainly not.

What would be the incentive to end a war in this case?

Man versus Machine

When the war in Afghanistan kicked off, the US military only had a handful of drones or unmanned weapons on the battlefield. Now it’s one of the military’s main concerns as they race to outdo the competition developing innovative robots that do the dirty work.

“The international community urgently needs to address the legal, political, ethical and moral implications of the development of lethal robotic technologies,” said Heyns.

Earlier, her predecessor, Philip Alston, had also called for a halt to CIA-directed drone strikes, saying that the killings ordered far from the battlefield could lead to a ‘Playstation’ mentality.

Satisfying bloodlust with a joystick

He was probably worried that soldier seeing the battlefield through a World of Warcraft-like interface, complete with tagged enemies and multiple channels of chat could be dangerous. Because a faceless war has no consequences for those fighting it. People are programmed to feel something when they kill a fellow human being, despite that, millions of them partake in video game violence the world over.

Remember the army recruits who were capable of Abu Ghraib, imagine what the scale of violence would be if they were put in control of a drone and allowed to fight a war without any consequences.

Soldiers suffer debilitating psychological conditions after their tours in war zones like post traumatic stress disorder, shell shock. The Iraq weapons inspector, David Kelly committed suicide after his report was used as the basis for the war that killed millions of innocents.

Victory is not supposed to feel like napalm in the morning.

The important thing to keep in mind is that ethics may get lost when you have robots fight wars for people. Because at the end of the day, robots, like cruise missiles loaded with atomic warheads mean destruction without consequences.


Omair Zeeshan

Corporate Account Manager by day and photographer by night. He can be found on Twitter @OmairZeeshan

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • The Only Normal Person Here.

    And the brains?Recommend

  • parvez

    Isn’t this a natural progression ? From swords to guns to tanks to robots. When you talk of ethics and war, the two don’t mesh.
    Technology on the march cannot be stopped. I believe the drone, the robot soldier etc are in their infancy as yet and this will proliferate. The arms industry is a juggernaut.
    At best the international legal minds can come up with new rules to try police the game.Recommend

  • Rashid Mostafa

    The results will be simple. You kill us, we’ll kill you. So whoever is at the receiving end of robot warfare will attack the home target of the perpetrators. This will be called terrorism. Good for politicians who need to distract from domestic woes. Bad for those civilians on the sharp end of both kinds of blood-letting.Recommend

  • Jerry

    So to keep our morality your saying we need to die in combat? Seems a little self destructive. Who’s wielding the sword? This is the real question. Robots are an inevitability.Recommend

  • Majid Urrehman

    We are well developed in robotics warfare.Recommend

  • Adam Rowan

    Ok so the difference between killing someone in say World of Warcraft is that the things you kill are just pieces of data not human lives. The person in charge of the robot still has to push the button to fire. Same as pulling the trigger on a gun. The mental strain of killing is still present. The solders action in this case a push of a button still is going to have an impact of a solders. killing with a robot or buy pulling the trigger on a gun is still killing. Lives are still lost. Robots are just another tool. This way they can stay out of harms way and still get the job done. These robots mean that maybe the young 20 year old will be able to go back to his loved one. T The robot taking the bullet to its armor instead of the solder taking it to the chest. he robot can be repaired the robot does not have family that would have to go to its funeral. The robot is not anyones dad mother brother or sister. I hate the idea of war but if we have to fight it then i would rather see machines die then our solders. I dont see where the debate comes in here.Recommend