Military Killer Robots Raise Moral Debate

April 4, 2011 Updated: October 1, 2015

EYE IN THE SKY: An Israeli Hermes 450W drone by Elbit Systems is displayed during a presentation to the media of products manufactured by the international defense electronics company in Haifa on Febr. 25, 2010.   (Jack Guez/Getty Images)
EYE IN THE SKY: An Israeli Hermes 450W drone by Elbit Systems is displayed during a presentation to the media of products manufactured by the international defense electronics company in Haifa on Febr. 25, 2010. (Jack Guez/Getty Images)
In some parts of the world, the threat of killer robots are a daily reality, as unmanned vehicles buzz overhead scanning the area. The world is entering a new form of warfare, and U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have laid its groundwork.

Unmanned vehicles, often referred to as drones, are quickly becoming the mainstay of the battlefield—a weapon of choice due to low cost and keeping soldiers out of harm’s way. As warfare enters an age of armed robots, however, ethics and how far this should go are coming into play.

“The tech term ‘killer application’ takes on new meaning in this space,” said P.W. Singer, author of "Wired for War,” in a Feb. 2009 TED Talks video.

The war in Iraq began with just a handful of unmanned vehicles, yet that number has jumped into the thousands. It’s success has begun a booming industry of military unmanned vehicles—robots armed for combat, devoid of human feeling, and acting at the command young soldiers miles away in front of computers.

The face and experience of war is changing, and as Singer describes it, the technology is still in its “Model T” stage. What is currently on the field is just the beginning, and although the United States is the current leader in military robotics, other countries are quickly adopting it.

In 2009, there were 43 countries developing unmanned vehicles, according to Singer, and that number may only grow as the systems become even less expensive and more widely available.

“What that means is that things that used to only be talked about at science fiction conventions like Comic Con, have to be talked about in the halls of power—places like the Pentagon. The robot revolution is upon us,” he said.

Changing Battlefield

There is a tough debate over the ethics of unmanned vehicles, and the military is unlikely to abandon the technology any time soon.

Unmanned vehicles take soldiers out of harm’s way. While patrolling the skies, they are largely immune to potential ambushes, planted explosives, and other dangers ground troops would face. Since the vehicles are small they also use fewer resources, they have a broad range of view, and require only a single pilot who is safe behind a computer in a Nevada military base.

There are quite a few horror stories, however, of misguided strikes killing innocent people.

“Sourcing on civilian deaths is weak and the numbers are often exaggerated, but more than 600 civilians are likely to have died from the attacks. That number suggests that for every militant killed, 10 or so civilians also died,” states a report from The Brookings Institution.

Whether unmanned vehicles violate international law is being debated. “The specific weapons fired from armed drones may not be currently illegal. However, taken as a whole, the drone weapon system—both as it operates now and its future potential for autonomous killing—may well be uniquely dangerous and a candidate for banning,” states a report from U.K.-based organization The Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Read more: A Detached Approach to War

Follow Joshua on Twitter: @JoshJPhilipp