Monday 23 July 2012

"Just say no" to drones

Why you should not accept military funding for work on robotics. And some eloquent anti-war rhetoric.

This is somewhat off-topic (there's certainly an information angle to it, but I'm not addressing that for the moment), but it struck me as a particularly good, and important, paper. "Just Say No" to Drones by Robert Sparrow is published in the IEEE Technology and Society Magazine [1], but is not, unfortunately, available on open access as far as I can find.

Sparrow is a philosopher at Monash University in Australia, and the paper is arguing that engineers (and scientists, mathematicians etc) should not accept funding from the military to work on robotics. Well, he's arguing that they shouldn't accept military funding full stop, but there's a particular issue with robotics at the moment. There's a lot of enthusiam within governments and the military for developing drones: robots that'll go and do your fighting for you, while you sit back 'out of harm's way'. Some people have argued that there is an ethical case for drones, because they mean you don't have to send your fighters into dangerous places. Sparrow doesn't agree.

First he reminds us that war's not very nice:
[I]n an era in which the horrors of war are largely visited on people living in Africa and the Middle East, it is worth reminding ourselves of the reality of what happens when weapons are used. War means death, destruction, suffering, brutality, and environmental devastation. It means young men and women dying in agony in the dirt or coming home with traumatic brain injury or missing limbs. Even in this age of smart bombs and Predator drones, most of those killed in wars are civilians. The soldiers who are killed or maimed are not the people who make the decisions that provoked the war. Indeed, overwhelmingly they are young men and women who were forced to fi ght or who joined the military because it offered one of the few ways out of poverty and entrenched lack of opportunities.
We do need reminding, sometimes, don't we?

In addition to this somewhat emotive (and none the worse for that, in my opinion) appeal, he argues at some length why war is not a good idea, and he persuasively counters the main arguments justifying the necessity of war. I was particularly struck by his comments the idea of a Just War:
In every war, at least one side is fighting an unjust war and in many wars neither side will have just cause or use just means. Thus, even within the just war tradition, the vast majority of wars are not justified. This means that if one is working for the military, the chances are that one will ultimately be serving the cause of injustice.
He presents specific arguments why recent wars - Iraq and Afghanistan - are not justified, then he considers the arguments that an individual, in a democracy, owes a duty to the state they live in, but says
[G]iven that participation in an unjust war is one of the worst crimes a nation may commit, citizens – including engineers – must retain the right to withdraw their active support from wars they judge to be unjustified by refusing to work on military projects.
Specifically about drones, he argues that they are likely to "significantly lower the threshold of conflict". In other words, if you've got drones so that you think you can go and kill other people with little risk to yourself, you are much more likely to go ahead and do it.
While it will prevent deaths among the warfighters of nations that are able to field robots, it will also make it easier for governments to initiate wars by encouraging them to believe that they can fight a war without television images of soldiers returning in body bags costing votes in the next election. In particular, governments will be tempted to try to resolve political problems by carrying out “targeted killings” – assassinations – and “surgical strikes”. Yet few political problems can be solved simply by killing people. [...]Paradoxically, then, further developments in robotic weapons may result in more members of the armed forces being placed in harm’s way, as governments are drawn into wars that they cannot win without placing human lives at risk
He's no luddite, but he is distressed by the idea that research on robots should be for military, rather than civilian, purposes:
These marvelous machines, which were supposed to liberate human beings from backbreaking labor and drudgery, are in fact mostly being built to kill people.
And he easily counters the argument "if I don't do it, someone else will":
That others might do what we choose not to does not absolve us of responsibility for our actions. There are always people willing to deal drugs, after all, but most of us do not conclude that it might as well be us.
Primarily, the paper is an appeal to the Engineering Profession, but to me is an extraodinarily clear-headed argument for, if not quite pacificism, a lot less enthusiasm for war than we are seeing at the moment.

[Minor edit 23/7/2012]

1 Sparrow, R.; , ""Just Say No" to Drones," Technology and Society Magazine, IEEE , vol.31, no.1, pp.56-63, Spring 2012
doi: 10.1109/MTS.2012.2185275

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