Artificial intelligence, AI, has dominated the news in recent years – and it should. The promise offered by AI in the commercial sector, think, for example, of driverless cars, is revolutionizing our thinking about how much AI can make our lives better.
That said, one of the most controversial aspects of AI is its use in military weapons. Here is how an article entitled, “Morals and the Machine,” in The Economist addressed the issue of AI in military unmanned systems this way:
As they become smarter and more widespread, autonomous machines are bound to end up making life-or-death decisions in unpredictable situations, thus assuming—or at least appearing to assume—moral agency. Weapons systems currently have human operators “in the loop”, but as they grow more sophisticated, it will be possible to shift to “on the loop” operation, with machines carrying out orders autonomously.
As that happens, they will be presented with ethical dilemmas. Should a drone fire on a house where a target is known to be hiding, which may also be sheltering civilians? Should a driverless car swerve to avoid pedestrians if that means hitting other vehicles or endangering its occupants? Should a robot involved in disaster recovery tell people the truth about what is happening if that risks causing a panic?
Such questions have led to the emergence of the field of “machine ethics,” which aims to give machines the ability to make such choices appropriately—in other words—to tell right from wrong. More collaboration is required between engineers, ethicists, lawyers and policymakers, all of whom would draw up very different types of rules if they were left to their own devices.
Until recently, the United States had the dominant position in AI, especially AI used for military purposes. That is no longer the case. Here is the way a recent New York Times article entitled, “China’s Intelligent Weaponry Gets Smarter,” began:
“Robert O. Work, the veteran defense official retained as deputy secretary by President Trump, calls them his “A.I. dudes.” The breezy moniker belies their serious task: The dudes have been a kitchen cabinet of sorts, and have advised Mr. Work as he has sought to reshape warfare by bringing artificial intelligence to the battlefield.
“Last spring, he asked, ‘O.K., you guys are the smartest guys in A.I., right?’”
“No, the dudes told him, ‘the smartest guys are at Facebook and Google,’ Mr. Work recalled in an interview.”
“Now, increasingly, they’re also in China. The United States no longer has a strategic monopoly on the technology, which is widely seen as the key factor in the next generation of warfare.”