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U.S. Department of Defense Report – Preparing for War in the Robotic age

Preparing for War in a Robotic Age

A recently released U.S. Department of Defense report, DTP 106: Policy Challenges of Accelerating Technological Change, sets out the potential benefits and concerns of Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and associated technologies (as well as advances in information and communications technologies (ICT) and cognitive science, big data, cloud computing, energy and nanotechnologies). Calling for policy choices that need to be made sooner rather than later, the authors, James Kadtke and Linton Wells II indicate:

This paper examines policy, legal, ethical, and strategy implications for national security of the accelerating science, technology, and engineering (ST&E) revolutions underway in five broad areas: biology, robotics, information, nanotechnology, and energy (BRINE), with a particular emphasis on how they are interacting. The paper considers the timeframe between now and 2030 but emphasizes policy and related choices that need to be made in the next few years

Recognizing advances in Robotics and AI the authors state their concerns about maintaining the US Department of Defense’s present technological preeminence and how this will be a difficult challenge. They believe that ‘many dedicated people are addressing the technology issues,’ but policy actions are also crucial to adapt to — and shape — the technology component of the international security environment. With respect to robotics they outline the areas they see advances in and where policy changes are needed:

Progress in robotics, artificial intelligence, and human augmentation is enabling advanced unmanned and autonomous vehicles for battlefield and hazardous operations, low-cost autonomous manufacturing, and automated systems for health and logistics.

Referencing a January 2014 report, Preparing for War in the Robotics Age by The Center for a New American Security, the new DOD report outlines the advantages and concerns should these technologies fall into the hands of adversaries:

Many of these areas, and especially their convergence, will result in disruptive new capabilities for D.o.D. which can improve warfighter performance, reduce health-care and readiness costs, increase efficiency, enhance decision making, reduce human risk… However, U.S. planning must expect that many of these also will be available to adversaries who may use them under very different ethical and legal constraints than we would.

To set the tone for the next 16 years and illustrate the rapid changes in technology they point to the fact that 16 years ago Facebook and Twitter did not exist and Google was just getting started. They remind us of where the world was in robotics 16 years ago and where it is now:

In robotics, few unmanned vehicles were fielded by the U.S. military; today, thousands of unmanned aerial vehicles are routinely employed on complex public and private missions, and unmanned ground and sea vehicles are becoming common.

The amount of change we can expect by 2030 is likely to be much greater than we have experienced since 1998, and it will be qualitatively different as technology areas become more highly integrated and interactive.

U.S. D.oD runs the risk of falling behind

They emphasize the need to mitigate the risks of this rapid development, and effectively exploit its development through carefully deliberated policies ‘to navigate a complex and uncertain future,’ despite the fact that ‘America’s share of global research is steadily declining.’

Focusing on the fact that other countries and the private sector are taking the lead in robotics, A.I. and human augmentation such as exoskeleton’s, they say that the ‘United States must begin to prepare for warfare in the robotic age.’

Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Human Augmentation: After decades of research and development, a wide range of technologies is now being commercialized that can augment or replace human physical and intellectual capabilities. Advances in sensors, materials, electronics, human interfaces, control algorithms, and power sources are making robots commercially viable — from personal devices to industrial-scale facilities. Several countries, including the United States, now have large-scale national initiatives aimed at capturing this burgeoning economic sector. Artificial intelligence has also made major advances in recent years, and although still limited to “weak” artificial intelligence, or AI, general-purpose artificial intelligence may be available within a decade.

They say that most of these technologies are, by themselves, merely tools, but these tools are turned into capabilities when adopted and used by people, organizations, societies, and governments.

Policy, legal, ethical and organizational issues

The report outlines 12 sections ‘offering cross-cutting recommendations that address broader policy, legal, ethical, and organizational issues… where there will be opportunities for shaping actions and capacity building within the next 2–3 years.’

One of those sections is concerned with the decline of US manufacturing — the report authors outline their concerns that U.S. manufacturers may not be able to produce U.S. DoD equipment and the technical know how will be in the hands of foreign governments:

The loss of domestic manufacturing capability for cutting-edge technologies means the United States may increasingly need to rely on foreign sources for advanced weapons systems and other critical components, potentially creating serious dependencies. Global supply chain vulnerabilities are already a significant concern, for example, from potential embedded “kill switches,” and these are likely to worsen.

The loss of advanced manufacturing also enhances tech transfer to foreign nations and helps build their Science Technology & Engineering base, which accelerates the loss of U.S. talent and capital. This loss of technological preeminence by the United States would result in a fundamental diminishing of national power.

Another of the 12 recommendations concerns so called KillBots:

Perhaps the most serious issue is the possibility of robotic systems that can autonomously decide when to take human life. The specter of Kill Bots waging war without human guidance or intervention has already sparked significant political backlash, including a potential United Nations moratorium on autonomous weapons systems. This issue is particularly serious when one considers that in the future, many countries may have the ability to manufacture, relatively cheaply, whole armies of Kill Bots that could autonomously wage war. This is a realistic possibility because today a great deal of cutting-edge research on robotics and autonomous systems is done outside the United States, and much of it is occurring in the private sector, including DIY robotics communities. The prospect of swarming autonomous systems represents a challenge for nearly all current weapon systems.

They recommend that the DoD should seek to remain ahead of the curve by developing concepts for new roles and missions and developing operational doctrine for forces made up significantly or even entirely of unmanned or autonomous elements and that government ‘should also be highly proactive in taking steps to ensure that it is not perceived as creating weapons systems without a “human in the loop.”

In the longer term, fully robotic soldiers may be developed and deployed, particularly by wealthier countries, although the political and social ramifications of such systems will likely be significant. One negative aspect of these trends, however, lies in the risks that are possible due to unforeseen vulnerabilities that may arise from the large scale deployment of smar automated systems, for which there is little practical experience. An emerging risk is the ability of small scale or terrorist groups to design and build functionally capable unmanned systems which could perform a variety of hostile missions.

Emphasizing that these technologies enable not only profoundly positive advancements for mankind but also new modes of war-fighting and tools for malicious behavior “the DoD cannot afford to be unprepared for its consequences.”

The report provides research data on various aspects of robotics, including economics, which shows that a large amount of research dollars are being invested in these systems globally by governments and corporations, whilst acknowledging that there are still considerable technical and social hurdles to overcome, principally because of concerns about the safety of human-to-robot interactions. However they believe that their recommendations, together with investments from NSF, DARPA, private sector and other governments, may be a key driver for developing the technical, legal, and sociological tools to make robots commonplace in human society.

Robotics is just one of a number of other new technologies that the report outlines, nevertheless policy makers worldwide would do well to head the advice and look at policy changes which will be needed to address these new systems.

Hat tip to Javier Lopez for a link to the paper.

Photo from Center for a New American Security – Preparing for War in a Robotic Age


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