IEEE Technology and Society Magazine - December 2019 - 35

An Empirical Survey
that Reveals
Common Ground
for the Ethical Debate

I

n the political debate on Autonomous
Weapon Systems strong views and opinions
are voiced, but empirical research to support these opinions is lacking. Insight into
which moral values are related to the deployment of Autonomous Weapon Systems
is missing. We describe the empirical results
of two studies on moral values regarding Autonomous
Weapon Systems that aim to understand the perception of people pertaining to the introduction of Autonomous Weapon Systems. One study consists of a sample of military personnel of the Dutch Ministry of
Defense and the second study contains a sample of civilians. The results indicate both groups are more anxious about the deployment of Autonomous Weapon
Systems than about the deployment of Human Operated drones, and that they perceive Autonomous Weapon Systems to have less respect for the dignity of human life. The concerns for Autonomous Weapon
Systems creating new kinds of psychological and moral harm is very present in the public debate, and this is
in our opinion one element that deserves to be carefully considered in future debates on the ethics of the design and deployment of Autonomous Weapon Systems.
The results of these studies reveal a common ground
regarding the moral values of human dignity and anxiety pertaining the introduction of Autonomous Weapon
Systems which could further the ethical debate.
Autonomous Weapon Systems are weapon systems
equipped with Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI can be
described as a system that perceives its environment and
selects actions to realize its predefined goals. Russell and
Norvig [1] provide an overview of many definitions combining views on systems that think and act like humans
and systems that think and act rationally, but they do
not present a clear definition of their own. Bryson [2]
states that a machine (or system) shows intelligent behavior if it can select an action based on an observation in
its environment. According to Floridi and Sanders [3], AI
is characterized by the concepts of adaptability, interactivity and autonomy. Adaptability means that the system
can change based on its interactions and can learn from
its experience. Machine learning techniques are an
example of this. Interactivity occurs when the system and
DECEMBER 2019

∕

its environment act upon each other and Autonomy indicates that the system itself can change its state and goals
[3]. Our definition of Autonomous Weapon Systems is
influenced by the description provided by Floridi and
Sanders [3] and can be characterized by the concepts of
adaptability, interactivity and autonomy.
Autonomous Weapon Systems are increasingly
deployed on the battlefield [4]. Autonomous systems can
have many benefits in the military domain, for example
when the autopilot of the F-16 prevents a crash [5], or
when the use of robots by the Explosive Ordnance Disposal allows dismantling bombs with less risks for military personnel [6]. Yet the use of Autonomous Weapon
Systems may also cause anxiety and concerns: it is
feared that these systems may end up behaving in
unpredictable and unwanted ways; that they may create
"accountability gaps" [7], and more generally, that their
use may be in conflict with respect for human dignity. All
these concerns have been voiced in the societal debate
raised among others by the "Stop Killer Robots Campaign" of 82 international, regional, and national nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in 35 countries directed
by Human Rights Watch [8], but also by the United
Nations. They have stated that "Autonomous weapons
systems that require no meaningful human control
should be prohibited, and remotely controlled force
should only ever be used with the greatest caution" [9].
In fact, as stated by Kaag and Kaufman [10] the deployment of Autonomous Weapon Systems on the battlefield
without direct human oversight is not only a military revolution, but can also be considered a moral one. As
large-scale deployment of AI on the battlefield seems
unavoidable [11], research on the ethics of the design
and use of these systems is imperative.
To be sure, theoretical reflections on the ethical risks
posed by the use of Autonomous Weapon Systems are
not lacking in the academic literature. One common
argument is that given the current status of technological development, robot systems may not be capable of
sophisticated practical and moral distinctions required
by the laws of armed conflict [12]-[17], and this may
raise the number of wrongs and crimes in military operations [18]. Others have gone as far as claiming that letting a machine be in control of the life and death of a

IEEE TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIETY MAGAZINE

35



IEEE Technology and Society Magazine - December 2019

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