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Robot Warriors Will Get a Guide to Ethics

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QinetiQ's MAARS robot

A Georgia Tech computer science professor is developing a package of software and hardware that tells military robots when and what to fire.


Georgia Institute of Technology professor Ronald Arkin is developing what he calls "ethical governor" software and hardware that will tell military robots when to use their weapons. Arkin argues that not only can robots be programmed to behave more ethically on the battlefield, but may be able to respond better than human soldiers. "Ultimately these systems could have more information to make wiser decisions than a human could make," Arkin says. "Some robots are already stronger, faster, and smarter than humans. We want to do better than people, to ultimately save more lives."

Humans are unlikely to relinquish control of military robots any time soon, particularly because Arkin's ethical governor is designed more for a traditional war where civilians have evacuated the war zone, while the U.S. military is currently acting as an occupational force in Afghanistan and Iraq. Arkin is working to translate 150-plus years of codified, written military law into terms robots can understand and interpret. "Robots don't have an inherent right to self-defense and don't get scared," he says. "The robots can take greater risk and respond more appropriately."

Arkin says robots capable of lethal force without the control of humans "are going to happen," adding it is just a question of how much autonomy will be given to these robots and how soon they will be developed.

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