Former Army Ranger Scharre, the director of the Future of War Initiative at the Center for a New American Security, looks at the technical, strategic, and ethical questions raised by autonomous weapons, which are closer to reality than many civilians may realize.
Mechanical weapons go back at least as far as the Civil War–era Gatling gun, which was expected to save lives by allowing a small crew to replace many riflemen. It led instead to the mass slaughter of World War I, when machine guns mowed down thousands of attacking infantrymen. Today’s drones allow air strikes without exposing pilots to enemy fire. But in those cases, human beings make the decision whether to fire. What happens if human judgment isn’t part of the decision-making loop? The author lists several weapons that pose that question, including missiles that could be sent to a location where enemy ships are known to be in order to seek out targets to attack. While such weapons are currently feasible, most military establishments are reluctant to deploy them. There is the ethical issue about using lethal force without a human taking the responsibility of killing, and there is also the strategic dilemma about starting an arms race. The technical question of creating autonomous control systems is already being tackled by makers of everything from vacuum cleaners to self-driving cars. Can robot tanks or bombers be far behind? Scharre looks at all these issues, talking to experts from the Pentagon, international peace organizations, and the robotics scientists who are pushing the boundaries of artificial intelligence. He also gives first-person reports on drone tests and other leading-edge technological developments. The author puts it all in the context of military history, including his own combat experience. While there are no firm conclusions, it is clear that autonomous weapons are on the horizon and that decisions about whether—and how—to use them will be critical factors in the future of warfare.
A clear, well-written, and richly documented discussion of an issue that deserves deep and careful study.