CMU Student Pugwash

  • Robots in Warfare

Robot soldiers are a staple of science fiction, whether fighting for or against their organic creators. Our own robotics technology has not yet reached the point where we can send out completely autonomous war machines; even so-called drones still ultimately have a human at the controls telling them where to go and when to open fire. However, defense contractors have already begun projects to remove this human operator from the equation. From 2013 to 2015 the U.S. Navy successfully tested Northrop-Grumman's X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System aboard aircraft carriers, and this August they awarded Boeing a contract to develop and build autonomous drones for aerial refueling. While these designs are not meant for actual combat, their successors may be.

Warfare has always involved putting human lives at risk, and the threat of long casualty lists has often served to discourage governments from military adventures. However, with autonomous robots doing all of the fighting and "dying" this no longer becomes a concern. Would governments become more carefree about using the military if that no longer meant putting their own people in harm's way?

Could we also see a radical change in the way wars are fought? In some older societies, such as the ancient Greeks and the Zulus, war often took the form of something akin to a ritual competition, with more effort spent on scaring the enemy into running away than actually killing them. If both sides have a military of autonomous robots, why should any humans have to die at all? Could war turn into more of a sporting competition between nations?

At the end of every meeting we take suggestions and vote on what to discuss next week.