Autonomous Weapons 

In the 21st century, technological advances have caused great disruption in the way we think and live, reaching into our homes, social lives, and now, our warzones. Autonomous weapons, a type of weapon using artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms to decide on its own when to deploy lethal force, are likely to upend many aspects of armed conflict and possible even save lives. 

As thrilling as these new advancements in artificial intelligence can be, even more concerning, for the most part, is what would happen if these weapons fall into the wrong hands? Autonomous weapons have the potential to forever alter the way war is conducted and with this potential comes many of the ethical and practical implications that come with such powerful technology.

The Promise of Autonomous Weapons 

Autonomous weapons can be envisioned as both a potentially ‘life-saving’ technology and a great moral hazard if they were to be abused and misused by those in power. Autonomous weapons, in the right hands, could hypothetically be used to target targets without bias and without an accompanying disregard for the safety of innocent people, as a necessary force to break a stalemate or to bring about quick, efficient action suitable for the high-pressure situations inherent in war zones.

For starters, autonomous weapons could be used to help protect civilian bystanders by providing a way to reliably differentiate between military / enemy and civilian / friendly personnel. This could be achieved through a combination of AI algorithms, sensors, and other technology that allow the autonomous weapons to identify a target and assess the associated risks prior to firing. Autonomous weapons might also be better able to detect and destroy hidden or disguised targets. AI-automated weapons systems could be utilized to identify individuals in a crowd or in residence fallouts, allowing precision attacks without having to risk civilian casualties. Additionally, autonomous weapons platforms could be used to quickly respond to situations that would require a significant response time by human operated weapons platforms to deploy a strategic assault quickly and with precision.

Furthermore, autonomous weapons could be effective behavior modifiers on the battlefield. Because autonomous weapons are able to acquire and analyze data more quickly and efficiently than humans, they could in theory be more effective in predicting the course that a battle will take and more easily preventing escalations of violence. This would reduce the number of casualties in a battle and the impacts on civilian bystanders, making it a more humane form of warfare.

In certain instances, autonomous weapons could also be used as a deterrent. Autonomous weapons systems whose AI is programmed to behave in especially aggressive ways could be employed in order to send clear messages before or during a conflict.

The Perils of Autonomous Weapons 

Unfortunately, along with the potential for lifesaving and efficient warfare comes a great potential for abuse. Autonomous weapons technologies already exist or are rapidly being developed, even though the implications of their use has yet to be fully explored. For instance, autonomous weapons systems could be used to target civilians or discriminatory groups. Autonomous weapon systems that are equipped with AI could arguably display bias if they were programmed with a history of biased decision-making by humans. Autonomous weapons systems that rely on AI algorithms would also be susceptible to hacking, allowing malicious actors to control the weapon and make it a dehumanizing tool of death and destruction.

Additionally, autonomous weapons systems could become both political and economic tools of oppression. Governments could use autonomous weapons systems to maintain control over people and ultimately disseminate warfare at their discretion, without regard for international laws or norms. Autonomous weapons systems could also be weaponized commercially and used to suppress resistance in wars for resources, such as those for water or oil.

Finally, there is the risk of an autonomous weapons arms race. Autonomous weapons systems are incredibly powerful and, unlike traditional weapons systems, can be rapidly replicated with relatively little effort. This could lead to an arms race between countries and the proliferation of autonomous weapons which can only lead to more harm and devastation.

The potential for autonomous weapons technology, though exciting, comes with certain ethical dilemmas and practical risks. Autonomous weapon systems could be used to save lives and reduce the impacts on civilian bystanders, as well as de-escalate situations between countries. But, it could also be abused, leading to an arms race that is all but impossible to contain and weaponized for further oppression. Autonomous weapons technology, though an exciting development, requires a lot of practical and ethical considerations before they can be fully adopted.

Before these weapons can be a tool for justice, much more must be done to build safeguards, regulations, and conventions in place to mitigate any potential consequences of autonomous weapons use. Governments around the world must be transparent in their actions and make sure that any autonomous weapon system is employed only when there is a clear public interest at stake.