It is not news that autonomous weapons capabilities powered by artificial intelligence are evolving fast. Many scholars and strategists foresee this new technology changing the character of war and challenging existing frameworks for thinking about just or ethical war in ways the U.S. national security community is not yet prepared to handle. Until U.S. policy makers know enough to draw realistic ethical boundaries, prudent U.S. policy makers are likely to focus on measures that balance competing obligations and pressures during this ambiguous development phase.
The widening rift between the Pentagon and Silicon Valley endangers national security in an era when global powers are embracing strategic military-technical competition. As countries race to harness the next potentially offsetting technology, artificial intelligence, the implications of relinquishing their competitive edge could drastically change the landscape of the next conflict. The Pentagon has struggled—and continues to struggle—to make a solid business case for technology vendors to sell their products to the Defense Department. Making the economic case to Silicon Valley requires process improvement, but building a strong relationship will necessitate embracing the ethical questions surrounding the development and employment of artificial intelligence on the battlefield.
The concern here, however, is not that death by robot represents a more horrible outcome than when a human pulls the trigger. Rather it has to do with the nature of morality itself and the central role respect for persons, understood in the Kantian sense as something moral agents owe each other, plays in forming our moral judgments.
In the aftermath of the German U-boat campaign in the First World War, many in Europe and the United States argued that submarines were immoral and should be outlawed. The British Admiralty supported this view, and as Blair has described, even offered to abolish their submarine force if other nations followed suit. While British proposals to ban submarines in 1922 and 1930 were defeated, restrictions on their use where imposed that mandated that submarines could not attack a ship until such ships crews and passengers were placed in safety. This reaction to the development of a new means of war is illustrative of the type of ethical and legal challenges that must be addressed as military organizations adopt greater human-machine integration.