Applied ethicist: engineers should stop working on drones, kick habit of military funding
By Madison Ruppert
Editor of End the Lie
It is hardly arguable that the use of drones – especially in the United States – is on the rise with no sign of slowing down any time soon. It is also inarguable that there seems to be a long future for this technology with a stunning variety of technological innovations and various lines of development.
However, not all are as enthusiastic about this as the military, law enforcement, lobbyists and those so-called public servants who support these dangerous efforts are.
One of those stepping up and speaking out against the seemingly unstoppable wave of drone development and deployment is Dr. Robert Sparrow, a Australian Research Council Future Fellow and Associate Professor (although one page lists him as a Senior Lecturer) in the department of philosophy at Monash University in Australia as well as one of the founders of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC).
In his refereed paper published in IEEE Technology and Society Magazine entitled, “’Just Say No’ to Drones,” Sparrow argues that engineers should begin to stop working on deadly drone technology and also to stop accepting huge amounts of funding from the military and defense contractors.
While this suggestion is obviously one I agree with, unfortunately I believe that the monetary incentive is so great that defense contractors and those who work for them will not seek to stop developing this type of technology so long as the funds keep flowing in.
Sparrow has gone as far as to call on engineers to outright boycott work on military robots in general, saying, “It is clear that military organizations fund a significant amount of, and perhaps even most of, robotics research today.”
Indeed, this is quite true as seen in the recent focus of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has focused on everything from cheap and somewhat creepy robots to lifelike humanoid robots to robots nearly as efficient as human beings to legged robots that can run at unbelievable speeds and more.
“Recent technological progress, which has greatly increased the potential for robots to keep soldiers ‘out of harm’s way’ and the perceived success of the U.S.’s Predator and Reaper drones in Afghanistan, has lead to a massive influx of funding from governments all around the world for research on military robotics,” said Sparrow.
According to a press release from Monash University, in his paper Sparrow argues that military robots are actually helping make war more likely by lowering the so-called threshold of conflict.
“Military robots are making it easier for governments to start wars, thinking that they won’t incur any casualties on their own side,” said Sparrow. “The ethics of working on military robotics today cannot be entirely divorced from the ethics of the ends to which military robots are used.”
This is a not only a valid point but it is also one which is far too often overlooked, in my opinion. Engineers working on this type of technology should be fully aware of what their efforts are contributing to, which is far from pretty.
Considering the fact that this type of technology does actually keep soldiers “out of harm’s way,” it only makes sense that the threshold of conflict is lowered. When governments can attack individuals and groups in other nations without declaring war (as we are in many countries including Yemen) or ever risking the loss of an American soldier, it is only that much easier to authorize such operations.
“If robots are not defending our homelands against foreign invaders or ‘terrorists’ but rather killing people overseas in unjust wars then this raises serious questions about the ethics of building robots for the military in the current period,” said Sparrow, referring to the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Sparrow isn’t foolish enough to think that it will be easy for engineers to stand up for the sanctity of human life by refusing to work on these types of military projects. Indeed, he is well aware of the fact that anyone working on these projects could be forced to pay quite a large personal price for refusing to work on these projects.
“Given how much robotics research is funded by the military, engineering students looking for a job or a place to undertake their doctorates may face a choice between working on a military project or not gaining entry into their desired profession at all,” said Sparrow.
“For this reason, the argument that engineers should ‘just say no’ to military funding is best addressed to the robotics community as a whole, rather than individual engineers,” he added.
However, Sparrow said that he is hopeful that his research will help create more dialogue within the robotics community which will help determine how the community could support the individuals who stand up and refuse to work on military robots and military funding.
“Hopefully most engineers can agree that we would all be better served if robots were being researched, designed and built to confront some of the urgent social and environmental challenges facing humanity today, rather than to kill or wield political power in foreign lands,” said Sparrow.
Personally, I couldn’t agree more with Sparrow’s position and his goals but as I mentioned before when we’re talking about countless billions – even trillions – of dollars in funding, the moral compasses of many seem to be thrown off.
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