Killer robots already exist, and they’ve been here a very long time

Wiener’s theory therefore went far beyond mere augmentation, for cybernetic technology could be used to pre-empt human decisions – removing the fallible human from the loop, in order to make better, quicker decisions and make weapons systems more effective.

In the years since World War II, the computer has emerged to sit alongside cybernetic theory to form a central pillar of military thinking, from the laser-guided “smart bombs” of the Vietnam era to cruise missiles and Reaper drones.

It’s no longer enough to merely augment the human warrior as it was in the early days. The next phase is to remove the human completely – “maximising” military outcomes while minimising the political cost associated with the loss of allied lives. This has led to the widespread use of military drones by the US and its allies. While these missions are highly controversial, in political terms they have proved to be preferable by far to the public outcry caused by military deaths.

The human machine
One of the most contentious issues relating to drone warfare is the role of the drone pilot or “operator”. Like all personnel, these operators are bound by their employers to “do a good job”. However, the terms of success are far from clear. As philosopher and cultural critic Laurie Calhoun observes: “The business of UCAV [drone] operators is to kill.”

In this way, their task is not so much to make a human decision, but rather to do the job that they are employed to do. If the computer tells them to kill, is there really any reason why they shouldn’t?

A similar argument can be made with respect to the modern soldier. From GPS navigation to video uplinks, soldiers carry numerous devices that tie them into a vast network that monitors and controls them at every turn.

This leads to an ethical conundrum. If the purpose of the soldier is to follow orders to the letter – with cameras used to ensure compliance – then why do we bother with human soldiers at all? After all, machines are far more efficient than human beings and don’t suffer from fatigue and stress in the same way as a human does. If soldiers are expected to behave in a programmatic, robotic fashion anyway, then what’s the point in shedding unnecessary allied blood?

The answer, here, is that the human serves as an alibi or form of “ethical cover” for what is in reality, an almost wholly mechanical, robotic act. Just as the drone operator’s job is to oversee the computer-controlled drone, so the human’s role in the Department of Defense’s new ATLAS system is merely to act as ethical cover in case things go wrong.

While Predator and Reaper drones may stand at the forefront of the public imagination about military autonomy and “killer robots”, these innovations are in themselves nothing new. They are merely the latest in a long line of developments that go back many decades.

While it may comfort some readers to imagine that machine autonomy will always be subordinate to human decision making, this really does miss the point. Autonomous systems have long been embedded in the military and we should prepare ourselves for the consequences.

Mike Ryder is Associate Lecturer, Lancaster University. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation.