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 Unfortunately, such a belief is sorely outdated, harking back to a time when .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.
quote: The Zeroth law allowed killing of humans when it was necessary to prevent a greater harm to humanity.