A Philosopher's Blog

Autonomous Weapons II: Autonomy Can Be Good

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on August 28, 2015

As the Future of Life Institute’s open letter shows, there are many people concerned about the development of autonomous weapons. This concern is reasonable, if only because any weapon can be misused to advance evil goals. However, a strong case can be made in favor of autonomous weapons.

As the open letter indicated, a stock argument for autonomous weapons is that their deployment could result in decreased human deaths. If, for example, an autonomous ship is destroyed in battle, then no humans will die. It is worth noting that the ship’s AI might qualify as a person, thus there could be one death. In contrast, the destruction of a crewed warship could results in hundreds of deaths. On utilitarian grounds, the use of autonomous weapons would seem morally fine—at least as long as their deployment reduced the number of deaths and injuries.

The open letter expresses, rightly, concerns that warlords and dictators will use autonomous weapons. But, this might be an improvement over the current situation. These warlords and dictators often conscript their troops and some, infamously, enslave children to serve as their soldiers. While it would be better for a warlord or dictator to have no army, it certainly seems morally preferable for them to use autonomous weapons rather than employing conscripts and children.

It can be replied that the warlords and dictators would just use autonomous weapons in addition to their human forces, thus there would be no saving of lives. This is certainly worth considering. But, if the warlords and dictators would just use humans anyway, the autonomous weapons would not seem to make much of a difference, except in terms of giving them more firepower—something they could also accomplish by using the money spent on autonomous weapons to better train and equip their human troops.

At this point, it is only possible to estimate (guess) the impact of autonomous weapons on the number of human causalities and injuries. However, it seems somewhat more likely they would reduce human causalities, assuming that there are no other major changes in warfare.

A second appealing argument in favor of autonomous weapons is based on the fact that smart weapons are smart. While an autonomous weapon could be designed to be imprecise, the general trend in smart weapons has been towards ever increasing precision. Consider, for example, aircraft bombs and missiles. In the First World War, these bombs were very primitive and quite inaccurate (they were sometimes thrown from planes by hand). WWII saw some improvements in bomb fusing and bomb sights and unguided rockets were used. In following wars, bomb and missile technology improved, leading to the smart bombs and missiles of today that have impressive precision. So, instead of squadrons of bombers dropping tons of dumb bombs on cities, a small number of aircraft can engage in relatively precise strikes against specific targets. While innocents still perish in these attacks, the precision of the weapons has made it possible to greatly reduce the number of needless deaths. Autonomous weapons would presumably be even more precise, thus reducing causalities even more. This seems to be desirable.

In addition to precision, autonomous weapons could (and should) have better target identification capacities than humans. Assuming that recognition software continues to be improved, it is easy to imagine automated weapons that can rapidly distinguish between friends, foes, and civilians. This would reduce deaths from friendly fire and unintentional killings of civilians. Naturally, target identification would not be perfect, but autonomous weapons could be far better than humans since they do not suffer from fatigue, emotional factors, and other things that interfere with human judgement. Autonomous weapons would presumably also not get angry or panic, thus making it far more likely they would maintain target discipline (only engaging what they should engage).

To make what should be an obvious argument obvious, if autonomous vehicles and similar technology is supposed to make the world safer, then it would seem to follow that autonomous weapons could do something similar for warfare.

It can be objected that autonomous weapons could be designed to lack precision and to kill without discrimination. For example, a dictator might have massacrebots to deploy in cases of civil unrest—these robots would just slaughter everyone in the area regardless of age or behavior. Human forces, one might contend, would show at least some discrimination or mercy.

The easy and obvious reply to this is that the problem is not in the autonomy of the weapons but the way they are being used. The dictator could achieve the same results (mass death) by deploying a fleet of autonomous cars loaded with demolition explosives, but this would presumably not be reasons to have a ban on autonomous cars or demolition explosives. There is also the fact that dictators, warlords and terrorists are able to easily find people to carry out their orders, no matter how awful they might be. That said, it could still be argued that autonomous weapons would result in more such murders than would the use of human forces, police or terrorists.

A third argument in favor of autonomous weapons rests on the claim advanced in the open letter that autonomous weapons will become cheap to produce—analogous to Kalashnikov rifles. On the downside, as the authors argue, this would result in the proliferation of these weapons. On the plus side, if these highly effective weapons are so cheap to produce, this could enable existing militaries to phase out their incredibly expensive human operated weapons in favor of cheap autonomous weapons. By replacing humans, these weapons would also create considerable savings in terms of the cost of recruitment, training, food, medical treatment, and retirement. This would allow countries to switch that money to more positive areas, such as education, infrastructure, social programs, health care and research. So, if the autonomous weapons are as cheap and effective as the letter claims, then it would actually seem to be a great idea to use them to replace existing weapons.

A fourth argument in favor of autonomous weapons is that they could be deployed, with low political cost, on peacekeeping operations. Currently, the UN has to send human troops to dangerous areas. These troops are often outnumbered and ill-equipped relative to the challenges they are facing. However, if autonomous weapons will be as cheap and effective as the letter claims, then they would be ideal for these missions. Assuming they are cheap, the UN could deploy a much larger autonomous weapon force for the same cost as deploying a human force. There would also be far less political cost—people who might balk at sending their fellow citizens to keep peace in some war zone will probably be fine with sending robots.

An extension of this argument is that autonomous weapons could allow the nations of the world to engage groups like ISIS without having to pay the high political cost of sending in human forces. It seems likely that ISIS will persist for some time and other groups will surely appear that are rather clearly the enemies of the rest of humanity, yet which would be too expensive politically to engage with human forces. The cheap and effective weapons predicted by the letter would seem ideal for this task.

In light of the above arguments, it seems that autonomous weapons should be developed and deployed. However, the concerns of the letter do need to be addressed. As with existing weapons, there should be rules governing the use of autonomous weapons (although much of their use would fall under existing rules and laws of war) and efforts should be made to keep them from proliferating to warlords, terrorists and dictators. As with most weapons, the problem lies with the misuse of the weapons and not with the weapons.


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Should Confederate Veterans be Honored as Veterans?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 9, 2015

Yet another interesting controversy has arisen in my adopted state of Florida. Three Confederate veterans, who fought against the United States of America, have been nominated for admission to Florida’s Veterans’ Hall of Fame. The purpose of the hall is to honor “those military veterans who, through their works and lives during or after military service, have made a significant contribution to the State of Florida.”

The three nominees are David Lang, Samuel Pasco and Edward A. Perry. Perry was Florida’s governor from 1885 to 1889; Pasco was a U.S. senator. Lang assisted in creating what became the Florida National Guard. As such, they did make significant contributions to Florida. The main legal question is whether or not they qualify as veterans. Since Florida was in rebellion (in defense of slaver) against the United States there is also a moral question of whether or not they should be considered veterans.

The state of Florida and the US federal government have very similar definitions of “veteran.” For Florida, a veteran is a person who served in the active military and received an honorable discharge. The federal definition states that “The term ‘veteran’ means a person who served in the active military, naval, or air service, and who was discharged or released therefrom under conditions other than dishonorable.” The law also defines “Armed Forces” as the “United States Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard.” The reserves are also included as being in the armed forces.

According to Mike Prendergast, the executive director of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the three nominees in question do not qualify because the applications to the hall did not indicate that the men served in the armed forces of the United States of America. Interestingly, Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam takes the view that “If you’re throwing these guys out on a technicality, that’s just dumb.”

Presumably, Putnam regards the fact that the men served in the Confederate army and took up arms against the United States as a technicality. This seems to be rather more than a mere technicality. After all, the honor seems to be reserved for veterans as defined by the relevant laws. As such, being Confederate veterans would seem to no more qualify the men for the hall than being a veteran of the German or Japanese army in WWII would qualify someone who moved to Florida and did great things for the state. There is also the moral argument about enrolling people who fought against the United States into this hall. Fighting in defense of slavery and against the lawful government of the United States would seem to be morally problematic in regards to the veteran part of the honor.

One counter to the legal argument is that Confederate soldiers were granted (mostly symbolic) pensions about 100 years after the end of the Civil War. Confederate veterans can also be buried in a special Confederate section of Arlington National Cemetery. These facts do push the door to a legal and moral argument open a crack. In regards to the legal argument, it could be contended that Confederate veterans have been treated, in some ways, as veterans. As such, one might argue, this should be extended to the Veterans’ Hall of Fame.

The obvious response is that these concessions to the Confederate veterans do not suffice to classify Confederate veterans as veterans of the United States. As such, they would not be qualified for the hall. There is also the moral counter that soldiers who fought against the United States should not be honored as veterans of the United States. After all, one would not honor veterans of other militaries that have fought against the United States.

It could also be argued that since the states that made up the Confederacy joined the United States, the veterans of the Confederacy would, as citizens, become United States’ veterans. Of course, the same logic would seem to apply to parts of the United States that were assimilated from other nations, such as Mexico, the lands of the Iroquois, and the lands of Apache and so on. As such, perhaps Sitting Bull would qualify as a veteran under this sort of reasoning. Perhaps this could be countered by contending that the south left and then rejoined, so it is not becoming part of the United States that has the desired effect but rejoining after a rebellion.

Another possible argument is to contend that the Veterans’ Hall of Fame is a Florida hall and, as such, just requires that the veterans be Florida veterans. In the Civil War units were, in general, connected to a specific state (such the 1st Maine). As such, if the men in question served in a Florida unit that fought against the United States, they would be Florida veterans but not United States veterans. Using this option would, of course, require that the requirements for the hall not include that a nominee be a veteran of the United States military and presumably it could not be connected to the United States VA since that agency is only responsible for veterans of the United States armed forces and not veterans who served other nations.

In regards to the moral concerns of honoring, as veterans, men who fought against the United States and in defense of slavery, it could be claimed that the war was not about slavery. The obvious problem with this is that the war was, in fact, fought to preserve slavery. The southern states made this abundantly clear. Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, gave his infamous Cornerstone Speech and made this quite clear when he said “Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

It could, of course, be argued that not every soldier fighting for the South was fighting to defend slavery. After all, just like today, most of the people fighting in wars are not the people who set policy or benefit from these policies. These men could have gone to war not to protect the institution of slavery, but because they were duped by the slave holders. Or because they wanted to defend their state from “northern aggression.” Or some other morally acceptable reason. That is, it could be claimed that these men were fighting for something other than the explicit purpose of the Confederacy, namely the preservation of slavery. Since this is not impossible, it could be claimed that the men should be given the benefit of the doubt and be honored for fighting against the United States and then doing significant things for Florida.

In any case, this matter is rather interesting and I am looking forward to seeing my adopted state mocked once again on the Daily Show. And, just maybe, Al Sharpton will show up to say some things.


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Chemical Weapons & Ethics

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 2, 2013
English: British Vickers machine gun crew wear...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the Syrian government has been condemned for killing people with conventional weapons, the “red line’ drawn by President Obama was the use of weapons of mass destruction, specifically chemical weapons. Those more cynical than I might suggest that this amounted to saying “we do not like that you are slaughtering people, but as long as you use conventional weapons…well, we will not do much beyond condemning you.”

While the Syrian government seemed content with conventional weapons, it has been claimed that government forces used chemical weapons. Fortunately, Secretary of State John Kerry did not use the phrase “slam dunk” when describing the matter.  As this is being written, President Obama has stated that he wants to launch an attack on Syria, but he has decided to let congress make the decision. While this raises some interesting issues, I will focus on the question of whether chemical weapons change the ethics of the situation. In more general terms, the issue is whether or not chemical weapons are morally worse than conventional weapons.

In terms of general perception, chemical weapons are often regarded with more fear and disgust than conventional weapons. Part of this is historical in nature. World War I one saw the first large scale deployment of chemical weapons (primarily gas launched via artillery shells). While conventional artillery and machine guns did the bulk of the killing, gas attacks were regarded with a special horror. One reason was that the effects of gas tended to be rather awful, even compared to the wounds that could be inflicted by conventional weapons. This history of chemical weapons still seems to influence us today.

Another historically based reason, I suspect, is the ancient view that the use of poison is inherently evil or at least cowardly. In both history and literature, poisoners are rarely praised and are typically cast as villains. Even in games, such as Dungeons & Dragons, the use of poison is regarded as an inherently evil act. In contrast, killing someone with a sword or gun can be acceptable (and even heroic).

A third historically based reason is, of course, the use of poison gas by the Nazis in their attempt to implement their final solution. This would obviously provide the use of poison gas with a rather evil connection.

Of course, these historical explanations are just that—explanations. They provide reasons as to why people psychologically regard such weapons as worse than conventional weapons. What is needed is evidence for one side or the other.

Another part of this is that chemical weapons (as mentioned above) often have awful effects. That is, they do not merely kill—they inflict terrible suffering. This, then, does provide an actual reason as to why chemical weapons might be morally worse than conventional weapons. The gist of the reasoning is that while killing is generally bad, the method of killing does matter. As such, the greater suffering inflicted by chemical weapons makes them morally worse than conventional weapons.

There are three obvious replies to this. The first is that conventional weapons, such as bombs and artillery, can inflict horrific wounds that can rival the suffering inflicted by chemical weapons. The second is that chemical weapons can be designed so that they kill quickly and with minimal suffering. If the moral distinction is based on the suffering of the targets, then such chemical weapons would be morally superior to conventional weapons. However, it is worth noting that horrific chemical weapons would thus be worse than less horrific conventional (or chemical) weapons.

The third is that wrongfully killing and wounding people with conventional weapons would still be evil. Even if it is assumed that chemical weapons are somewhat worse in the suffering they inflict, it would seem that the moral red line should be the killing of people rather than killing them with chemical weapons. After all, the distinction between not killing people and killing them seems far greater than the distinction between killing people with conventional weapons and killing them with chemical weapons. For example, having soldiers machine gun everyone in a village seems to be morally as bad as having soldiers fire gas shells onto the village until everyone is dead. After all, the results are the same.

Another aspect of chemical weapons that supposedly makes them worse than conventional weapons is that they are claimed to be indiscriminate. For example, a chemical weapon is typically deployed as a gas and the gas can drift and spread into areas outside of the desired target. As another example, some chemical agents are persistent—they remain dangerous for some time after the initial attack and thus can harm and kill those who were not the intended targets. This factor certainly seems morally relevant.

The obvious reply is that conventional weapons can also be indiscriminate in this way. Bombs and shells can fall outside of the intended target area to kill and maim people. Unexploded ordinance can lie about until triggered by someone. As such, chemical weapons do not seem to necessarily worse than conventional weapons—rather it is the discrimination and persistence of the weapon that seem more important than the composition. For example, landmines certainly give chemical weapons strong competition in regards to being indiscriminate and persistent.

Thus, while a specific chemical weapon could be morally worse than a specific conventional weapon, chemical weapons are not inherently morally worse than conventional weapons.


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Rational Threat Assessment

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on August 30, 2010
SS Leviathan
Image via Wikipedia

A seemingly unbreakable law of nature is that all things die. This seems to apply to individuals as well as collectives, such as nations and empires. As history shows, empires rise, stumble, and then fall. Perhaps the end comes in war (as WWI spelled the end of some empires), due to environmental changes or some other means. But, the end has always arrived.

While the United States is regarded by some as being exceptional, we do not seem to be imbued with a special immunity against the death of empire. In fact, it seems certain that some day the dawn shall come and there will be no United States. While this end, like the death of any one of us, seems inevitable, it need not come soon. Just as a person can hold death with good choices and some luck, so can the collective that is the United States.

The first step in doing this is recognizing the real dangers that we face. This requires doing a rational threat assessment rather than following the usual methodology of the pundits and the politicians.

This usual method involves presenting as a serious threat whatever they happen to think people will fear the most or what will result in the greatest profit for those whose interests they serve. Obviously, those on the left and the right do this. Folks on the right tell us that the shabby terrorists who come up with shoe and underwear bombs, who have no warships, tanks, or standing armies are the supreme threat. Well, almost supreme. There are, after all,  the illegals who want to cross the border to steal our jobs, commit crimes and drop anchor babies. Folks on the left tell us that we face sure destruction from climate change, warn of the infinite evil of all corporations (by posting on Facebook using their iPhones), and think we should be rid of guns once and for all. Obviously, I do exaggerate a bit. But just a bit.

Since I teach critical thinking, I am naturally inclined to want people to use the methods of critical thinking and logic when assessing threats. As with assessing anything, it is rather important to attempt the assessment in an objective manner. This does not mean setting aside one’s values or feelings. But it does mean being aware of how these values and emotions impact the assessment. To use an analogy, it is like knowing that you are looking through lenses that are tinted and a bit distorted. Knowing this, you can do a better job of determining what you are really looking at. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) we cannot remove our emotional and value lenses. But we can learn to correct for any distortions they might create in our perceptions.

Doing this also means being able to take into account one’s biases, interests and prejudices. For example, someone who can profit greatly from their being a war on terror would be rather motivated to see terrorism as a huge threat that requires very expensive countermeasures. As another example, someone who has invested heavily in “green” technology would be rather motivated to push the idea of climate change. Being aware of these factors can be difficult. Being able to set them aside when making assessments is even more challenging.

Being able to see how these factors impact one’s assessment is a difficult thing. Being able to regulate their impact is even harder. However, it can be done. To use an easy and obvious example, I (and many other educators) can grade papers in a very objective manner. To use another example, although I am sometimes accused of being horribly biased, I seem to do a reasonably good job considering the various sides to issues and their merits and problems. In any case, I obviously consider views that oppose my own and do not, for example, delete replies that criticize me or my arguments.

An obvious question is, of course, why do we need to have rational threat assessments? Can’t we just muddle along as we have, dragged left and right by the pundits and politicians?

Well, we can. But that is like being aboard a ship where the wheel is pulled left or right not based on where the rocks really are, but based on where the folks with the loudest voices say they are. Or, even worse, having the wheel pulled based on fears of imaginary sea monsters or by those who see a minnow as the Leviathan come to devour the ship. This is, obviously enough, a recipe for disaster.

While I generally disagree with Glenn Beck, I do agree that the United States does need some repairs. However, the first repair must be to the way we judge the threats and dangers. We face real dangers, big and small. However, we need to properly sort out the real from the unreal and the big from the small. Then we can do the rational thing and address the real problems based on how serious they really are.

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