Soldiers who see in the dark, communicate telepathically, or fly a drone by thought alone all sound like characters from in a science fiction film. Yet research projects investigating all these possibilities are under way in laboratories and research centres around the globe as part of an upsurge of interest in the possibilities of human enhancement enabled largely by expanding knowledge in the field of neuroscience: the study of the human brain and nervous system.
In order to help in understanding the possibilities and hazards posed by human enhancement technology, Drone Wars UK is publishing ‘Cyborg Dawn?‘, a new study investigating the military use of human augmentation.
Human enhancement – a medical or biological intervention to the body designed to improve performance, appearance, or capability beyond what is necessary to achieve, sustain or restore health – may lead to fundamentally new concepts of warfare and can be expected to play a role in enabling the increased use of remotely operated and uncrewed systems in war.
Although military planners are eager to create ‘super soldiers’, the idea of artificially modifying humans to give them capabilities beyond their natural abilities presents significant moral, legal, and health risks. The field of human augmentation is fraught with danger, and without stringent regulation, neurotechnologies and genetic modification will lead us to an increasingly dangerous future where technology encourages and accelerates warfare. The difficulties are compounded by the dual use nature of human augmentation, where applications with legitimate medical uses could equally be used to further the use of remote lethal military force. There is currently considerable discussion about the dangers of ‘killer robot’ autonomous weapon systems, but it is also time to start discussing how to control human enhancement and cyborg technologies which military planners intend to develop. Read more →
Almost a year ago the Ministry of Defence (MoD) launched its Defence Artificial Intelligence Strategy to explain how it would adopt and exploit artificial intelligence (AI) “at pace and scale”. Among other things, the strategy set out the aspiration for MoD to be “trusted – by the public, our partners and our people, for the safety and reliability of our AI systems, and our clear commitment to lawful and ethical AI use in line with our core values”.
An accompanying policy document, with the title ‘Ambitious, Safe, Responsible‘ explained how MoD intended to win trust for its AI systems. The document put forward five Ethical Principles for AI in Defence, and announced that MoD had convened an AI Ethics Advisory Panel: a group of experts from academia, industry, civil society and from within MoD itself to advise on the development of policy on the safe and responsible development and use of AI.
The AI Ethics Advisory Panel and its role was one of the topics of interest to the House of Lords Select Committee on AI in Weapon Systems when it met for the fourth time recently to take evidence on the ethical and human rights issues posed by the development of autonomous weapons and their use in warfare. Witnesses giving evidence at the session were Verity Coyle from Amnesty International, Professor Mariarosaria Taddeo from the Oxford Internet Institute, and Dr Alexander Blanchard from the Alan Turing Institute. As Professor Taddeo is a member of the MoD’s AI Ethics Advisory Panel, former Defence Secretary Lord Browne took the opportunity to ask her to share her experiences of the panel.
“It is the membership of the panel that really interests me. This is a hybrid panel. It has a number of people whose interests are very obvious; it has academics, where the interests are not nearly as clearly obvious, if they have them; and it has some people in industry, who may well have interests.
What are the qualifications to be a member and what is the process you went through to become a member? At any time were you asked about interests? For example, are there academics on this panel who have been funded by the Ministry of Defence or government to do research? That would be of interest to people. Where is the transparency? This panel has met three times by June 2022. I have no idea how often it has met, because I cannot find anything about what was said at it or who said it. I am less interested in who said it, but it would appear there is no transparency at all about what ethical advice was actually shared.
As an ethicist, are you comfortable about being in a panel of this nature, which is such an important element of the judgment we will have to take as to the tolerance of our society, in light of our values, for the deployment of these weapons systems? Should it be done in this hybrid, complex way, without any transparency as to who is giving the advice, what the advice is and what effect it has had on what comes out in this policy document?”
Lord Browne’s questions neatly capture some of the concerns which Drone Wars shares about the MoD’s approach to AI ethics. Professor Taddeo set out the benefits of the panel as she saw them in her reply, but clearly shared many of Lord Browne’s concerns. “These are very good questions, which the MoD should address”, she answered. She agreed that “there can be improvement in terms of transparency of the processes, notes and records”, and said that “this is mentioned whenever we meet”. She also raised questions about the effectiveness of the panel, telling the Lords that: “This discussion is one hour and a half, and there are a lot of experts in the room who are all prepared, but we did not even scratch the surface of many issues that we have to address”. The panel is an advisory panel, and “so far, all we have done is to be provided with a draft of, for example, the principles or the document and to give feedback”.
If the only role the MoD’s AI Ethics Advisory Panel has played was to advise on principles for inclusion in the Defence Artificial Intelligence Strategy, then an obvious question is what is needed instead to ensure that MoD develops and uses AI in a safe and responsible way? Professor Taddeo felt that the current panel “is a good effort in the right direction”, but “would hope it is not deemed sufficient to ensure ethical behaviour of defence organisations; more should be done”. Read more →
The third evidence session for the House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence (AI) in weapon systems heard views on the development and impact of autonomous weapons from the perspective of the military technology sector.
Witnesses giving evidence at the session were former RAF officer and Ministry of Defence (MoD) advisor Dr Keith Dear, now at Fujitsu Defence and Security; James Black of RAND Europe, Kenneth Payne of Kings College London and the MoD’s Defence Academy at Shrivenham, and Courtney Bowman of US tech company Palantir Technologies. Palantir specialises in the development of AI technologies for surveillance and military purposes and has been described as a “pro-military arm of Silicon Valley”. The company boasts that its software is “responsible for most of the targeting in Ukraine”, supporting the Ukrainian military in identifying tanks, artillery, and other targets in the war against Russia, and its Chief Technology Officer recently told the US Senate’s Armed Services Committee that: “If we want to effectively deter those that threaten US interests, we must spend at least 5% of our budget on capabilities that will terrify our adversaries”.
Not surprisingly, the witnesses tended to take a pro-industry view towards the development of AI and autonomous weapon systems, arguing that incentives, not regulation, were required to encourage technology companies to engage with concerns over ethics and impacts, and taking the fatalistic view that there is no way of stopping the AI juggernaut. Nevertheless, towards the end of the session an interesting discussion on the hazards of arms racing took place, with the witnesses suggesting some positive steps which could help to reduce such a risk.
Arms racing and the undermining of global peace and security becomes a risk when qualitatively new technologies promising clear military advantages seem close at hand. China, Russia, and the United States of America are already investing heavily in robotic and artificial intelligence technologies with the aim of exploiting their military potential. Secrecy over military technology, and uncertainty and suspicion over the capabilities that a rival may have further accelerates arms races.
Competition between these rivals to gain an advantage over each other in autonomous technology and its military capabilities already meets the definition of an arms race – ‘the participation of two or more nation-states in apparently competitive or interactive increases in quantity or quality of war material and/or persons under arms’ – and has the potential to escalate. This competition has no absolute end goal: merely the relative goal of staying ahead of other competitors. Should one of these states, or another technologically advanced state, develop and deploy autonomous weapon systems in the field, it is very likely that others would follow suit. The ensuing race can be expected to be highly destabilising and dangerous. Read more →
The second public session of the House of Lords inquiry into artificial intelligence (AI) in weapon systems took place at the end of March. The session examined how the development and deployment of autonomous weapons might impact upon the UK’s foreign policy and its position on the global stage and heard evidence from Yasmin Afina, Research Associate at Chatham House, Vincent Boulanin, Director of Governance of Artificial Intelligence at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and Charles Ovink, Political Affairs Officer at United Nations Office for Disarmament.
Among the wide range of issues covered in the two-hour session was the question of who could be held accountable if human rights abuses were committed by a weapon system acting autonomously. A revealing exchange took place between Lord Houghton, a former Chief of Defence Staff (the most senior officer of the UK’s armed forces), and Charles Ovink. Houghton asked whether it might be possible for an autonomous weapon system to comply with the laws of war under certain circumstances (at 11.11 in the video of the session):
“If that fully autonomous system has been tested and approved in such a way that it doesn’t rely on a black box technology, that constant evaluation has proved that the risk of it non-complying with the parameters of international humanitarian law are accepted, that then there is a delegation effectively from a human to a machine, why is that not then compliant, or why would you say that that should be prohibited?”
This is, of course, a highly loaded question that assumes that a variety of improbable circumstances would apply, and then presents a best-case scenario as the norm. Ovink carefully pointed out that any decision on whether such a system should be prohibited would be for United Nations member states to decide, but that the question posed ‘a big if’, and it was not clear what kind of test environment could mimic a real-life warzone with civilians present and guarantee that the laws of war would be followed. Even if this was the case, there would still need to be a human accountable for any civilian deaths that might occur. Read more →
A special investigation set up by the House of Lords is now taking evidence on the development, use and regulation of artificial intelligence (AI) in weapon systems. Chaired by crossbench peer Lord Lisvane, a former Clerk of the House of Commons, a stand-alone Select Committee is considering the utility and risks arising from military uses of AI.
The committee is seeking written evidence from members of the public and interested parties, and recently conducted the first of its oral evidence sessions. Three specialists in international law, Noam Lubell of the University of Essex, Georgia Hinds, Legal Advisor at International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and Daragh Murray of Queen Mary University of London, answered a variety of questions about whether autonomous weapon systems might be able to comply with international law and how they could be controlled at the international level.
One of the more interesting issues raised during the discussion was the point that, regardless of military uses, AI has the potential to wreak a broad range of harms across society, and there is a need to address this concern rather than racing on blindly with the development and roll-out of ever more powerful AI systems. This is a matter which is beginning to attract wider attention. Last month the Future of Life Institute published an open letter calling for all AI labs to immediately pause the training of AI systems more powerful than GPT-4 for at least six months. Over 30,000 researchers and tech sector workers have signed the letter to date, including Stuart Russell, Steve Wozniak, Elon Musk, and Yuval Noah Harari.
Leaving aside whether six months could be long enough to resolve issues around AI safety, there is an important question to be answered here. There are already numerous examples of cases where existing computerised and AI systems have caused harm, regardless of what the future might hold. Why, then, are we racing forward in this field? Has the combination of tech multinationals and unrestrained capitalism become such an unstoppable juggernaut that humanity is literally no longer able to control where the forces we have created are taking us? If not, then why won’t governments intervene to put the brakes on the development and use of AI, and what interests are they actually working to protect? This is unlikely to be a line of inquiry the Lords Committee will be pursuing. Read more →
Drone Wars UK is today publishing a short paper analysing the UK’s approach to the ethical issues raised by the use of artificial intelligence (AI) for military purposes in two recently policy documents. The first part of the paper reviews and critiques the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD’s) Defence Artificial Intelligence Strategy published in June 2022, while the second part considers the UK’s commitment to ‘responsible’ military artificial intelligence capabilities, presented in the document ‘Ambitious, Safe, Responsible‘ published alongside the strategy document.
Drone Wars UK believes that the development and deployment of AI-enabled autonomous weapons would give rise to a number of grave risks, primarily the loss of human values on the battlefield. Giving machines the ability to take life crosses a key ethical and legal Rubicon. Lethal autonomous drones would simply lack human judgment and other qualities that are necessary to make complex ethical choices on a dynamic battlefield, to distinguish adequately between soldiers and civilians, and to evaluate the proportionality of an attack.
In the short term it is likely that the military applications of autonomous technology will be in low risk areas, such logistics and the supply chain, where, proponents argue, there are cost advantages and minimal implications for combat situations. These systems are likely to be closely supervised by human operators. In the longer term, as technology advances and AI becomes more sophisticated, autonomous technology is increasingly likely to become weaponised and the degree of human supervision can be expected to drop.
The real issue perhaps is not the development of autonomy itself but the way in which this milestone in technological development is controlled and used by humans. Autonomy raises a wide range of ethical, legal, moral and political issues relating to human judgement, intentions, and responsibilities. These questions remain largely unresolved and there should therefore be deep disquiet about the rapid advance towards developing autonomous weapons systems. Read more →