press release
Published: 08 December 2021

Reith lectures miss the point in debate about AI in the military

Dr Alex Leveringhaus, author of the paper “What is so bad about killer robots?” and the book, Ethics and Autonomous Weapons, comments on military uses of AI in response to BBC Reith Lecture.

Commenting on this morning’s Reith Lecture by Professor Stuart Russell, the University of Surrey’s Dr Alex Leveringhaus, Lecturer in Political Theory, Co-Director at the Centre for International Intervention, and author of the Journal of Applied Philosophy peer-reviewed paper “What is so bad about killer robots?” and the book, Ethics and Autonomous Weapons, said:

“Professor Russell is right to warn about the dangers of weapons using artificial intelligence, but the issues run far deeper than he covered. Sure, one could make a case for banning small anti-personnel autonomous weapons, though it is not clear that these weapons are somehow on a par with weapons of mass destruction or landmines, contrary to Professor Russel’s assertions. Any weapon can be abused to kill individuals illegally and indiscriminately. It is not evident that autonomous weapons necessarily pose special problems here that non-autonomous systems don’t.

“Importantly, we also need to look at current use of automatic weaponry and technology. What is the difference between using autonomous weapons and the automated weapons we have available now and which are legal under International Humanitarian Law? Ultimately, the result is the same: both types of systems enhance the ability to engage targets remotely and without direct supervision by a human operator. Professor Russell talked about protecting civilians, which is a legal duty under International Humanitarian Law, but we also need to protect combatants, who are classed as ’legitimate targets’ under the Geneva Convention, and AI can potentially be helpful there.

“What is worrying, however, which wasn’t covered in the Reith Lecture, is the ease with which AI could increase the militarisation of space, which is more accessible for robots than people. And, in light of climate change, the fact that AI-driven robots enable future resource wars in inaccessible regions like the poles or deep oceans.

“Clearly, in addition to computer scientists like Professor Russell, we need qualified experts in conflict studies, international relations, and international law to play a more visible role in the debate on this subject. In the end, the discussion needs to be about ethics, politics, and the law. As Professor Russell’s lecture showed, the technology is there. Let’s ensure the ethics and the law catch up and the politics get ahead.”

Dr Leveringhaus contributes to the Surrey Institute for People-Centred AI, which brings together over 30 years of leading expertise in AI and machine learning foundations and practice with domain expertise across the humanities, law and regulation, ethics, politics, business and the physical and health sciences to inform future AI policy and ensure that people are at the heart of future AI. 

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