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The evitability of autonomous robot warfare*


This is a call for the prohibition of autonomous lethal targeting by free-ranging robots. This article will first point out the three main international humanitarian law (IHL)/ethical issues with armed autonomous robots and then move on to discuss a major stumbling block to their evitability: misunderstandings about the limitations of robotic systems and artificial intelligence. This is partly due to a mythical narrative from science fiction and the media, but the real danger is in the language being used by military researchers and others to describe robots and what they can do. The article will look at some anthropomorphic ways that robots have been discussed by the military and then go on to provide a robotics case study in which the language used obfuscates the IHL issues. Finally, the article will look at problems with some of the current legal instruments and suggest a way forward to prohibition.

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The title is an allusion to a short story by Isaac Asimov, ‘The evitable conflict’, where ‘evitable’ means capable of being avoided. Evitability means avoidability.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Noel Sharkey , ‘The automation and proliferation of military drones and the protection of civilians’, in Journal of Law, Innovation and Technology, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2001, pp. 229240

Noel Sharkey , ‘Cassandra or the false prophet of doom: AI robots and war’, in IEEE Intelligent Systems, Vol. 23, No. 4, 2008, pp. 1417

Robert Sparrow , ‘Building a Better WarBot: Ethical Issues in the Design of Unmanned Systems for Military Applications’, in Science and Engineering Ethics, Vol. 15, No. 2, 2009, pp.169187

Amanda Sharkey and Noel Sharkey , ‘Artificial Intelligence and Natural Magic’, in Artificial Intelligence Review, Vol. 25, No. 1–2, 2006, pp. 919

Ronald C. Arkin , ‘Ethical Robots in Warfare’, in IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Vol. 28, No. 1, Spring 2009, pp. 3033

Robin Murphy and David Woods , ‘Beyond Asimov: the three laws of responsible robotics’, in IEEE Intelligent Systems, Vol. 24, No. 4, July–August 2009, pp. 1420

Wendell Wallach and Colin Allen , Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right from Wrong, Oxford University Press, New York, 2009

Justin McClelland , ‘The review of weapons in accordance with Article 36 of Additional Protocol’, in International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 85, No. 850, 2003, pp. 397415

Noel E. Sharkey , ‘Saying — No! to Lethal Autonomous Targeting’, in Journal of Military Ethics, Vol. 9, No. 4, 2010, pp. 299313

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International Review of the Red Cross
  • ISSN: 1816-3831
  • EISSN: 1607-5889
  • URL: /core/journals/international-review-of-the-red-cross
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