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The new world of killer robots

23 November 2012

THE TIMES reported this week that the House of Commons Defence Select Committee is to open an inquiry into the use of drones by British forces in Afghanistan. This comes as the RAF is expanding its use of drones, and is preparing to bring their control to Lincolnshire from the United States. There is little doubt that unmanned aerial vehicles (AEVs) are the near-future of warfare - Israeli drones have been buzzing about Gaza all week - and we need a greater debate on their use.

For some, they are a moral no-brainer. They do not put pilots at risk, and, if they are being used as attack drones rather than simply as reconnaissance, they allow the person controlling them to make a decision on whether to fire in the reflective calm of a bunker thousands of miles away. This makes targeting more accurate and less subject to mistakes produced by stress and anger. Yet, precisely because they are regarded as risk-free (and relatively cheap) ways of conducting war, they make violence seem so much more palatable to politicians. Thus they can easily encourage an escalation of violence.

But arguably more problematic still is their use as means of assassination. Drones are now the weapon of choice in hunting down terrorists and terrorist suspects around the world. American AEVs now regularly fly into foreign airspace, including into the airspace of countries with whom they are not at war, to take out suspected terrorists. The people they kill are never put on trial. And suspects are often targeted on the basis of signature behaviour - as it were, on the basis of behavioural profiling. It is one thing for this to happen in war, quite another in countries such as Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan.

Justification for this activity is often that it goes on only in failed states, where the rule of law has broken down. But surely this cannot justify the extra-judicial killings of terrorist suspects in ways that are not open to legal or critical scrutiny, but rather only on the secret unchallenged say-so of the CIA. Drones are weapons without boundaries or borders. This is why they represent a whole different level of moral concern.

This week, Human Rights Watch published Losing Humanity, a study that describes how killer drones have terrifying potential when allied with the increasing use of robotics. What happens when drones don't even need human operators? What happens when they are fully automated? This future is closer than we think. Such drones would not only deliver death without risk, but, even worse, death without responsibility. It's a terrifying new world.

Canon Giles Fraser is Priest-in-Charge of St Mary's, Newington, in the diocese of Southwark.


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