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Who Did It--Man or Machine?

The future of "killer drones" is one in which, instead of being operated by remote control, the drones themselves make the decision to attack. If (and when) that happens, who will be held responsible--the machine or the military that launched it?

The First World War was launched with a single assassination. In the March 17th edition of the New York Times, Bill Keller quotes Stephen of Human Rights Watch as saying, "This is something people seem to feel at a very gut level is wrong. The ugh factor comes through really strong."

Keller writes: "Some robotics experts doubt that a computer will ever be able to reliably distinguish between an enemy and an innocent, let alone judge whether a load of explosives is the right, or proportional, response. What if the potential target is already wounded, or trying to surrender? And even if artificial intelligence achieves or surpasses a human level of competence, the critics point out, it will never be able to summon compassion.

"If a robot bombs a school, who gets the blame: the soldier who sent the machine into the field? His commander? The manufacturer? The inventor?"

In the April 4th edition of the New York Review of Books, Kenneth Roth asks the following questions: "Can the rationale based on war be stretched this far? Should the administration really have the right to attack anyone it might characterize as a combatant against the United States? What if that person is walking the streets of London or Paris?

"Being an armed man in a war zone is not enough to make someone a combatant in societies where men routinely bear arms. In cases of doubt, the laws of war require presuming that people are not combatants. (And) affiliation with an armed group in Yemen or Somalia may show only that the person is fighting the local government, not the United States.

But maybe machines can't do worse than human soldiers: Keller quotes roboticist Ronald Arkin as saying, "My friends who served in Vietnam told me that they fired at anything that moved. I think we can design intelligent, lethal, autonomous systems that can potentially do better than that."

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