Source: Dilbert Comic Strip on 2011-03-06 | Dilbert by Scott Adams
An autonomous weapon system (AWS) is designed and manufactured in a collaborative project between American and Indian defense contractors. It is sold to numerous countries around the world. This model of AWS is successfully deployed in conflicts in Latin America, the Caucuses, and Polynesia without violating the laws of war. An American Lt. General then orders that 50 of these units be deployed during a conflict in the Persian Gulf for use in ongoing urban combat in several cities. One of those units had previously seen action in urban combat in the Caucuses and desert combat during the same Persian Gulf conflict, all without incident. A Major makes the decision to deploy that AWS unit to assist a platoon engaged in block-to-block urban combat in Sana’a. Once the AWS unit is on the ground, a Lieutenant is responsible for telling the AWS where to go. The Lt. General, the Major, and the Lieutenant all had previous experience using this model of AWS and had given similar orders to these in prior combat situations without incident.
The Lieutenant has lost several men to enemy snipers over the past several weeks. He orders the AWS to accompany one of the squads under his command and preemptively strike any enemy sniper nests it detects–again, an order he had given to other AWS units before without incident. This time, the AWS unit misidentifies a nearby civilian house as containing a sniper nest, based on the fact that houses with similar features had frequently been used as sniper nests in the Caucuses conflict. It launches a RPG at the house. There are no snipers inside, but there are 10 civilians–all of whom are killed by the RPG. Human soldiers who had been fighting in the area would have known that that particular house likely did not contain a sniper’s nest because the glare from the sun off a nearby glass building reduces visibility on that side of the street at the times of day that American soldiers typically patrol the area–a fact that the human soldiers knew well from prior combat in the area, but a variable that the AWS had not been programmed to take into consideration.
In my most recent post for FLI on autonomous weapons, I noted that it would be difficult for humans to predict the actions of autonomous weapon systems (AWSs) programmed with machine learning capabilities. If the military commanders responsible for deploying AWSs were unable to reliably foresee how the AWS would operate on the battlefield, it would be difficult to hold those commanders responsible if the AWS violates the law of armed conflict (LOAC). And in the absence of command responsibility, it is not clear whether any human could be held responsible under the existing LOAC framework.
A side comment from a lawyer on Reddit made me realize that my reference to “foreseeability” requires a bit more explanation. “Foreseeability” is one of those terms that makes lawyers’ ears perk up when they hear it because it’s a concept that every American law student encounters when learning the principles of negligence in their first-year class on Tort Law.
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The previous entry in this series examined why it would be very difficult to ensure that autonomous weapon systems (AWSs) consistently comply with the laws of war. So what would happen if an attack by an AWS resulted in the needless death of civilians or otherwise constituted a violation of the laws of war? Who would be held legally responsible?
In that regard, AWSs’ ability to operate free of human direction, monitoring, and control would raise legal concerns not shared by drones and other earlier generations of military technology. It is not clear who, if anyone, could be held accountable if and when AWS attacks result in illegal harm to civilians and their property. This “accountability gap” was the focus of a 2015 Human Rights Watch report. The HRW report ultimately concluded that there was no plausible way to resolve the accountability issue and therefore called for a complete ban on fully autonomous weapons.
Although some commentators have taken issue with this prescription, the diagnosis seems to be correct—it simply is not clear who could be held responsible if an AWS commits an illegal act. This accountability gap exists because AWSs incorporate AI technology could collect information and determine courses of action based on the conditions in which they operate. It is unlikely that even the most careful human programmers could predict the nearly infinite on-the-ground circumstances that an AWS could face. It would therefore be difficult for an AWS designer–to say nothing of its military operators–to foresee how the AWS would react in the fluid, fast-changing world of combat operations. The inability to foresee an AWS’s actions would complicate the assignment of legal responsibility.
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“Robots won’t commit war crimes. We just have to program them to follow the laws of war.” This is a rather common response to the concerns surrounding autonomous weapons, and it has even been advanced as a reason that robot soldiers might be less prone to war crimes than human soldiers. But designing such autonomous weapon systems (AWSs) is far easier said than done. True, if we could design and program AWSs that always obeyed the international law of armed conflict (LOAC), then the issues raised in the previous segment of this series — which suggested the need for human direction, monitoring, and control of AWSs — would be completely unfounded. But even if such programming prowess is possible, it seems unlikely to be achieved anytime soon. Instead, we need be prepared for powerful AWS that may not recognize where the lines blur between what is legal and reasonable during combat and what is not.
While the basic LOAC principles seem straightforward at first glance, their application in any given military situation depends heavily on the specific circumstances in which combat takes place. And the difference between legal and illegal acts can be blurry and subjective. It therefore would be difficult to reduce the laws and principles of armed conflict into a definite and programmable form that could be encoded into the AWS and, from which the AWS could consistently make battlefield decisions that comply with the laws of war.
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