Event Highlights: Robots on the Trigger, Are Soldiers Replaceable?

Robots on the Trigger: Are Soldiers Replaceable?

Podium discussion hosted by the Katholische Akademie Berlin (Berlin Catholic Academy) and the Zentrum für Ethische Bildung in den Stretikräften (Center for Ethical Armed Forces Education)

(Berlin, 4 September 2013) – The auditorium of the Berlin Catholic Academy became the setting of a dynamic academic debate on Wednesday evening. The discussion examined the potential advantages and disadvantages of Lethal Autonomous Robot (LAR) development – particularly in the context of their future academic, moral, legal, and militaristic use and misuse. The event drew an international audience of academics, civil society organizations, journalists, and military members. The podium panel represented four prominent voices in the global debate: Prof. Ronald C. Arkin, researcher and roboticist at the Georgia Institute of Technology; Stephen Goose, founder of the Nobel Peace Prize winning International Campaign to Ban Landmines and director of Human Rights Watch; Dr. David Rodin, director at the Oxford Centre for Ethics and Laws of Armed Conflict (ELAC); and Lt. Col. Dr. Jörg Wellbrink, a multi-agent system (M.A.S.) specialist representing the German Armed Forces.

Major talking points of the evening included a debate on whether a ban on LARs is in order. Stephen Goose is a spokesperson for the newly founded “Campaign to STOP Killer Robots,” and believes that a comprehensive ban on LARs is the simplest and most viable solution for combating the inherent risks associated with the development and mass-production of LARs. Goose particularly stressed LARs’ inability to make complex human analyses and judgments (i.e. feelings of empathy, compassion, etc.) and the dangerous potential for LARs to be used against civilians by despotic rulers. Prof. Arkin opposed this view by suggesting that with proper development, robots could potentially save lives both on and off the battlefield. In his 45-minute address, he warned that a comprehensive ban could hinder future research thus limiting all potential benefits of this technology. Dr. Rodin later challenged this position, commenting that installing ethical standards and/or IHL into robots is not a plausible solution as that technology is simply “out of reach.” Lt. Col. Dr. Wellbrink argued that a comprehensive ban against LARs would be redundant given the current constraints under International Humanitarian Law (IHL), Rules of Engagement (ROE), and the inherent financial costs associated with implementing this technology.