thoughts and observations of a privacy, security and internet researcher, activist, and policy advisor

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Terminator 1.0: unmanned systems shooting autonomously

The U.S. Department of Defense is working on unmanned systems that can fire their weapons independent of a human operator giving the order. Jane's Defence Weekly reports:
A proposal, unveiled publicly in September but never before publicised, would give "armed autonomous systems" the authority to shoot to destroy hostile weapon systems but not suspected combatants.
The proposal emerged in the Naval Surface Warfare Center, is based on work done at the Defense Safety Working Group, and is titled 'A Concept of Operations for Armed Autonomous Systems'. It was presented at the Disruptive Technology Conference sponsored by the National Defense Industries Association in September.
"Let's design our armed unmanned systems to automatically ID, target and neutralise or destroy the weapons used by our enemies - not the people using the weapons. This gives us the possibility of disarming a threat force without the need for killing them."
Legal experts contacted by Jane's were not convinced:
The laws of armed conflict require that for any attack to be legitimate, the attacker must be able to discriminate between combatants and civilians, as well as avoid creating damage that is disproportionate to the threat.
I wrote my diploma thesis about "new technologies and the change of civil-military relations" in 1998. One of the findings was that the self-image of the professional soldier was contested and becoming unstable when hackers, information specialists and journalists were considered an important part of the battlefield as part of the "information warfare" and similar paradigms. US military pilots freaked out over the notion of an air force without pilots, just using unmanned, but still remotely-controlled aerial vehicles (UAVs). Until now, soldiers have been regarded the only persons legitimately being allowed to use violence for more than the immediate defence against violence - the famous "killing people and breaking things" rule. I wonder how they think about an autonomus machine competing on their turf.

To quote my University of Bremen colleague and digital culture researcher Christoph Engemann, who alerted me of this story: "Terminator T1.0 is underway".

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