Keep Droning On

The abilities of robots are improving everyday. From video drones flown by civilians, to war machines that can engage and attack humans automatically, there are ethical questions behind any machine that can do what a human can’t do alone.

An article in The Atlantic explained that robots are used for national security to complete dull, dirty and/or dangerous jobs. Whether for surveillance or disassembling bombs, robots always act with “dispassion”.  Even in the heat of war, a robot cannot become fatigued, hungry, angry or distracted, and will perform the same regardless of conditions that may be incredibly stressful to humans.

However, robots are rarely completely self automated, and can generally at least be overridden by humans.  However, if a robot has information that human can’t see, such as night vision, who should make the decision?  If a robot can identify a civilian is in danger, but a human operator authorizes an attack anyway, should the robot be able to veto the command, or should it be required to follow the human instruction.

Ethically, the robot would be doing right by saving a human life, but giving a  robot the ability to override humans commands may be a slippery slope that movies like I, Robot warn of. If robots aren’t coded to always obey human operators, the potential for them to act uncontrollably is far more likely.

While automation encourages dispassion and therefor strong ethics, these ethics are still programmed by the robots creator, and an be influenced by the programmer or whoever funds the project. Two robots of the same function could make different decisions if one is  programmed by a computer scientist in Japan and the other is built by the U.S. Navy. Both may make ethical decisions in their home countries, but if they were used in a foreign place their ethics may not match that society’s.

This is currently happening in the United States as Native American’s are fighting to protect their lands and water from an oil pipeline.  There is a standoff of protests between police and protestors in Standing Rock that has been occurring for over six months.  Protestors have been tear gassed, attacked and shot with rubber bullets, so some are using video drones to document what they believe to be unfair treatment.

The drones should not cause any ethical issues because they are simply recording the actions of police, but the drones have been attacked with rocks and even shot at by police officers. Although the surveillance simply encourages transparency from the government and does not pose a threat to officers, these public officials seem to believe their privacy is necessary.

If they were private residents on their own property, I would completely understand shooting down the drones, but as working employees of the government, it only seems as if they have something unethical to hide.

**Feature image provided by Tomwsulcer under CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain

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