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Editorial

Abbot Peter Novecosky, OSB

06/01/2016

Abbot Peter Novokosky

Killer robots being designed

A rare weapon used by Adolph Hitler in the Second World War was recently bought on eBay for $18.

Bletchley Park historians in England recovered a Lorenz teleprinter from a home in Southend, Essex, where it had been lying forgotten on the floor of a shed. They realized it was part of the system Hitler used to exchange top secret messages with his high command.

While the Enigma system was used by the German war machine to exchange coded messages with frontline units, the more complicated and cumbersome Lorenz coding system was used to deliver detailed messages exclusively to the eyes of the commanders at static headquarters.

War has become a lot more complicated and complex in our modern world. Daily reports on the devastation created by the war machines of today bring that reality right into our own living rooms.

An even greater danger facing the world today are Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS). Also called killer robots, they have been getting a lot of attention recently. LAWS have been called the third revolution in warfare.

Project Ploughshares, a research and education arm of the Canadian Council of Churches on issues of peace and public security, noted in a May 16 press release that last November UN member countries agreed to hold meetings on lethal autonomous weapons at the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons held in Geneva April 11 - 15.

Project Ploughshares summarized some of the ethical concerns this emerging technology creates:

— Does allowing life-or-death decisions to be made by machines cross a fundamental moral line? These machines will lack the human judgment necessary to understand the context and the ethical choices that must be made when deploying these weapons.

— Who will be held accountable for setting the decision-making parameters of these robots?

— How will the protocols put in place by the manufacturers affect the level of human control over the robots?

Computers still have major shortcomings, despite the speed at which they operate. IBM’s super-computer Watson can process a million books’ worth of information in one second, but in February 2011, it told millions of viewers of the game show Jeopardy that Toronto is in the United States.

It took several days for IBM’s computer engineers to find the problem in the machine. The mistake came just months after a computer glitch caused a “flash crash” on Wall Street, wiping out billions of dollars in equity.

Advocates of LAWS argue that robot weapons promise many of the same benefits as unmanned, human-controlled systems now in use — including limiting risks to military personnel, driving down costs, allowing penetration of enemy lines with little risk, and circumventing human shortcomings with faster response times and no fatigue or boredom. Robots don’t get scared. They don’t get mad. They don’t respond to a situation with rage.

These autonomous weapons systems are currently not in use, but no doubt their advocates will push hard. UN officials are advocating world leaders adopt a treaty to ban the weapons. Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, said lethal weapons without human control — whether they’re used for policing or military purposes — would violate international humanitarian law.

The devastation wrought by killer robots is easily portrayed on digital screens. It would be a major catastrophe if this becomes feasible in reality.