On Monday, an Israeli defense contractor unveiled a remote-controlled armed robot that can patrol battle zones, track infiltrators and open fire – the latest iteration of drone technology that is changing modern battlefields.
Sarah Kreps is a professor of government and international relations at Cornell University. Her research focuses on the use of drones for counterterrorism, cyber security and cyber escalation. Kreps says that if countries are going to be turning to unmanned tech on the ground, a human should be kept in the loop on decisions about life and death.
“Unmanned vehicles are useful for anything that is dull, dirty, or dangerous. They have long been used in an airborne context such as counterterrorism drone strikes where pilots might otherwise be at risk. Now they're being developed and attracting interest for operations on the ground.
“We should take the lessons we've learned from the airborne context and apply them to the ground. What we've seen in the unmanned drone context is that these technologies can create a moral hazard. The virtue of unmanned tech is that we shield our military personnel from risk. The vice is that without skin in the game, conflict may seem more antiseptic, which may make it more likely. The effects are normatively perilous because if conflict becomes more likely, then more people will die, even if they aren't ‘our people.’
“The effects are also problematic from a battlefield perspective. Twenty-first century conflict is often as much about hearts and minds as brute force. These technologies might get it right 99% of the time, but even if they're wrong 1% of the time, the civilian casualties will lead to blowback in which the local populations turn against the country that used them. If countries are going to be turning to unmanned tech on the ground, it will behoove them to keep a human in the loop on decisions about life and death.”