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Published 27 August 2012

A leading Australian applied ethicist says engineers should stop working on killer robots and kick the habit of military funding; the professor said military robots are making war more likely by lowering the threshold of conflict

Robotics lowers the entry point bar for engaging in warfare // Source: blogcatalog.com

Engineers should stop working on killer robots and kick the habit of military funding, a leading Australian applied ethicist has said.

In a paper published in IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Monash University philosopher Dr. Robert Sparrow, called on engineers to boycott work on military robots such as the controversial Predator drone from the United States.

“It is clear that military organizations fund a significant amount of, and perhaps even most of, robotics research today,” Sparrow said.

 

“Recent technological progress, which has greatly increased the potential for robots to keep soldiers ‘out of harm’s way’ and the perceived success of the U.S.’s Predator and Reaper drones in Afghanistan, has lead to a massive influx of funding from governments all around the world for research on military robotics.”

A Monash University release reports that in his research paper, “’Just Say No’ to Drones,” Sparrow said military robots are making war more likely by lowering the threshold of conflict.

“Military robots are making it easier for governments to start wars, thinking that they won’t incur any casualties on their own side”, Sparrow said. “The ethics of working on military robotics today cannot be entirely divorced from the ethics of the ends to which military robots are used.”

He said the invasion and occupation of both Iraq and Afghanistan were immoral.

“If robots are not defending our homelands against foreign invaders or ‘terrorists’ but rather killing people overseas in unjust wars then this raises serious questions about the ethics of building robots for the military in the current period,” Sparrow said.

Sparrow, of the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies, said he realizes individuals, particularly engineers, could pay a high personal price for refusing to work on projects that receive military funding.

“Given how much robotics research is funded by the military, engineering students looking for a job or a place to undertake their doctorates may face a choice between working on a military project or not gaining entry into their desired profession at all,” Sparrow said.

“For this reason, the argument that engineers should ‘just say no’ to military funding is best addressed to the robotics community as a whole, rather than individual engineers.”

Sparrow said he hoped his research will spur discussion within the robotics community as to how it might support those who do refuse military funding.

“Hopefully most engineers can agree that we would all be better served if robots were being researched, designed and built to confront some of the urgent social and environmental challenges facing humanity today, rather than to kill or wield political power in foreign lands,” Sparrow said.

Sparrow is one of the founding members of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control.

— Read more in Robert Sparrow, ” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine 31, no. 1 (Spring 2012),

Special Section: Social Impacts of National Security Technologies

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