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A new Navy-funded report warns against a hasty deployment of war robots, and urges programmers to include ethics subroutines -- a warrior code of sorts. The alternative they say, is the possibility of a robotic atrocity, akin to the Terminator or other sci-fi movies.  (Source: Warner Brothers)
Robots must learn to obey a warrior code, but increasing intelligence may make keeping the robots from turning on their masters increasingly difficult

Robots gone rogue killing their human masters is rich science fiction fodder, but could it become reality?  Some researchers are beginning to ask that question as artificial intelligence advances continue, and the world's high-tech nations begin to deploy war-robots to the battlefront.  Currently, the U.S. armed forces use many robots, but they all ultimately have a human behind the trigger.  However, there are many plans to develop and deploy fully independent solutions as the technology improves.

Some mistakenly believe that such robots would only be able to operate within a defined set of behaviors.  Describes Patrick Lin, the chief compiler of a new U.S. Navy-funded report, "There is a common misconception that robots will do only what we have programmed them to do.  Unfortunately, such a belief is sorely outdated, harking back to a time when . . . programs could be written and understood by a single person."

The new report points out that the size of artificial intelligence projects will likely make their code impossible to fully analyze and dissect for possible dangers.  With hundreds of programmers working on millions of lines of code for a single war robot, says Dr. Lin, no one has a clear understanding of what going on, at a small scale, across the entire code base.

He says the key to avoiding robotic rebellion is to include "learning" logic which teaches the robot the rights and wrongs of ethical warfare.  This logic would be mixed with traditional rules based programming. 

The new report looks at many issues surrounding the field of killer robots.  In addition to code malfunction, another potential threat would be a terrorist attack which reprogrammed the robots, turning them on their owners.  And one tricky issue discussed is the question of who would take the blame for a robotic atrocity -- the robot, the programmers, the military, or the U.S. President.

The Ethics and Emerging Technology department of California State Polytechnic University created the report of the U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Research.  It warns the Navy about the dangers of premature deployment or complacency on potential issues.  U.S. Congress has currently mandated that by 2010 a "deep strike" unmanned aircraft must be operational, and by 2015 on third of the ground combat vehicles must be unmanned.

The report warns, "A rush to market increases the risk for inadequate design or programming. Worse, without a sustained and significant effort to build in ethical controls in autonomous systems . . . there is little hope that the early generations of such systems and robots will be adequate, making mistakes that may cost human lives."

Simple laws of ethics, such as Isaac Asimov's three laws of robotics, the first of which forbids robots from harming humans, will not be sufficient, say the report's authors.  War robots will have to kill, but they will have to understand the difference between enemies and noncombatants.  Dr. Lin describes this challenge stating, "We are going to need a code.  These things are military, and they can’t be pacifists, so we have to think in terms of battlefield ethics. We are going to need a warrior code."

The U.S. Army had a scare earlier this year when a software malfunction caused war robots deployed in the field to aim at friendly targets.  While the humans still had control of the trigger, the incident highlighted the challenges a fully autonomous system would face.  The offending robots were serviced and are still deployed in Iraq.

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Isaac Asimov
By gcason on 2/17/2009 1:38:46 PM , Rating: 2
Asimov already covered this in the 40's with his three laws of Robotics.

RE: Isaac Asimov
By JS on 2/17/2009 1:51:04 PM , Rating: 5
Yeah, well, robots who refuse to hurt humans won't be very useful in combat.

RE: Isaac Asimov
By Fritzr on 2/18/2009 11:36:31 AM , Rating: 2
Asimov's Robots could and did kill. The Zeroth law allowed killing of humans when it was necessary to prevent a greater harm to humanity. This 4th Law was added when R. Daneel Olivaw shows up in the Empire Trilogy.

In the earlier books with only Laws 1,2 & 3 operating, hardware and software errors made it possible for a robot to harm or kill human beings.

When you're looking at perfectly functioning code installed in a warbot you need to consider combat damage. The enemy will not check the User's Manual to see what damage they are allowed to infict :P

RE: Isaac Asimov
By JS on 2/20/2009 3:40:03 PM , Rating: 2
The Zeroth law allowed killing of humans when it was necessary to prevent a greater harm to humanity.

I have my doubts as to how often that law would kick in for robots serving in current US military operations.

RE: Isaac Asimov
By KristopherKubicki (blog) on 2/17/2009 3:15:43 PM , Rating: 3
... and Asimov still managed to write hundreds of stories about how those laws could be implemented poorly, or where they were in conflict :) Looks like we have a way to go still.

RE: Isaac Asimov
By glitchc on 2/17/2009 9:43:59 PM , Rating: 2
... and some of us still derive great pleasure in reading them. Kudos!

RE: Isaac Asimov
By mindless1 on 2/17/2009 9:59:40 PM , Rating: 2
Then if he has all the answers we just have to find a way to clone enough copies of him to do all the work, educate them all, etc., but with a different education suddenly it's not Isaac anymore except in basic DNA.

"Nowadays, security guys break the Mac every single day. Every single day, they come out with a total exploit, your machine can be taken over totally. I dare anybody to do that once a month on the Windows machine." -- Bill Gates

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