Robotics researchers have a duty to prevent autonomous weapons
Posted by admin on 4th December 2019

Robotics is rapidly being transformed by advances in artificial intelligence. And the benefits are widespread: We are seeing safer vehicles with the ability to automatically brake in an emergency, robotic arms transforming factory lines that were once offshored and new robots that can do everything from shop for groceries to deliver prescription drugs to people who have trouble doing it themselves.

But our ever-growing appetite for intelligent, autonomous machines poses a host of ethical challenges.

Rapid advances have led ethical dilemmas

These ideas and more were swirling as my colleagues and I met in early November at one of the world’s largest autonomous robotics-focused research conferences – the IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems. There, academics, corporate researchers, and government scientists presented developments in algorithms that allow robots to make their own decisions.

As with all technology, the range of future uses for our research is difficult to imagine. It’s even more challenging to forecast given how quickly this field is changing. Take, for example, the ability for a computer to identify objects in an image: in 2010, the state of the art was successful only about half of the time, and it was stuck there for years. Today, though, the best algorithms as shown in published papers are now at 86% accuracy. That advance alone allows autonomous robots to understand what they are seeing through the camera lenses. It also shows the rapid pace of progress over the past decade due to developments in AI.

This kind of improvement is a true milestone from a technical perspective. Whereas in the past manually reviewing troves of video footage would require an incredible number of hours, now such data can be rapidly and accurately parsed by a computer program.

San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban the use of facial recognition technology by police and other city agencies. This same technology can be coupled with drones, which are becoming more autonomous.
AP Photo/Eric Risberg

But it also gives rise to an ethical dilemma. In removing humans from the process, the assumptions that underpin the decisions related to privacy and security have been fundamentally altered. For example, the use of cameras in public streets may have raised privacy concerns 15 or 20 years ago, but adding accurate facial recognition technology dramatically alters those privacy implications.

Easy to modify systems

When developing machines that can make own decisions – typically called autonomous systems – the ethical questions that arise are arguably more concerning than those in object recognition. AI-enhanced autonomy is developing so rapidly that capabilities which were once limited to highly engineered systems are now available to anyone with a household toolbox and some computer experience.

Commercial drones allow for many beneficial uses, such as delivering medicine or spraying for mosquitoes.
AP Photo/Haroub Hussein

People with no background in computer science can learn some of the most state-of-the-art artificial intelligence tools, and robots are more than willing to let you run your newly acquired machine learning techniques on them. There are online forums filled with people eager to help anyone learn how to do this.

With earlier tools, it was already easy enough to program your minimally modified drone to identify a red bag and follow it. More recent object detection technology unlocks the ability to track a range of things that resemble more than 9,000 different object types. Combined with newer, more maneuverable drones, it’s not hard to imagine how easily they could be equipped with weapons. What’s to stop someone from strapping an explosive or another weapon to a drone equipped with this technology?

Using a variety of techniques, autonomous drones are already a threat. They have been caught dropping explosives on U.S. troops, shutting down airports and being used in an assassination attempt on Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro. The autonomous systems that are being developed right now could make staging such attacks easier and more devastating.