back to article Work for the military? Don't be evil, says ethicist

Engineers should refuse to work on killer robots, says Australian ethicist Dr Robert Sparrow. Sparrow's definition of a killer robot includes the Predator drone, a weapon he finds objectionable because “Military robots are making it easier for governments to start wars, thinking that they won't incur any casualties on their …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Of course on the one hand it may make it easier for politicians to go to war (I don't believe that to be honest, I think politicians are perfectly happy to go to war regardless, just look at the US and UK governments of late). However it also means that when your politicians have decided to murder their own people in the name of X cause a few less may die because an engineers provided an automated way for them to do their job.

    The politicians know they'll incur casualties, the hundreds dead on the Wests sides and the thousands (tens of?) of locals were on the "balance" sheet when they decided to go to war. They just pretend to be surprised.

  2. Thorne

    Idiot! Since when has the government worried about casualties? A robot getting blown up means it wasn't someone's son instead. Wars are still going to happen. You'd have better luck asking the workers not to make bullets. At least that will stop soldiers.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      A robot getting blown up means it wasn't someone's son instead.

      Tell that to the ten's of thousands of civilians killed on the "enemies" side.

      I admire this guys stance, but to many racists, xenophobes and war mongers in this world for him to be listened to.

      At the end of the day, war makes good business sense and that's what count in this shallow world of ours, not people, but money, greed and power.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: A robot getting blown up means it wasn't someone's son instead.

        > I admire this guys stance, but to many racists, xenophobes and war mongers in this world for him to be listened to.

        So anybody who disagrees with him is a racist, xenophobe or war monger. It must be nice to be able pigeon hole people so easily.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      At least that will stop soldiers

      Ironically, bullets stop soldiers.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      To be honest i sometimes wonder if the government cares more about a robot than a person. A soldier to the fiscally minded politician is probably cheaper than say a predator drone.

      You've only got to look on the modern battlefield to see this happening i reckon:

      "Send in the tanks!"

      "Sir, the enemy have anti tank missiles."

      "Send in the troops!"

      Says it all really. Most of our armour sits at the back, people are expendable, hardware costs money. The above is especially true of the air force.

      1. Ron 6
        Big Brother

        Silly comment


        You would find it hard to justify your view of the modern battlefield by looking at the mix of equipment provided. The idea that a battleground can exist that is foot or armor only is mind boggling. Even Afghanistan has armor (in the form of aircraft more than tanks.)

        In Iraq the armor (including APCs) provided mobility and ,for lack of a better term, do-it-yourself fortresses. The problem with that is the enormous support structure required to keep those forces supplied in the field. The modern battle tank is equivalent to WWII tank company and takes even more resources to support.

        The antitank missiles these days, you are more likely thinking of RPGs and IEDs are more of a threat to the APCs and soft skinned vehicles. Which is where you see them being used. Those weapons have caused the development, again, of new vehicles to get troops in relative safely to and from combat. But unless your willing to pound every square foot of ground to a depth of 6 or 10 feet how do you make it safe for the troops?

        If you can pound it, will the politicians accept the cost? The US lost Vietnam, it didn't loose it by the lack of dollars spent. The same goes for Korea and Somalia. It will probably be true for Iraq and Afghanistan.


        There is IMHO no good solution. The politicians do what they want for the reasons they want and the rest of us have to dance to their tune.

      2. Severen

        "Most of our armour sits at the back.......The above is especially true of the air force."


        "Send in the planes!"

        "But sir, they have anti-aircraft missiles!"

        ".....Give that man a can of Red Bull, get him to flap his arms really, really fast and send him in!"

        You obviously have no idea how an air force works.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Another approach...

    GOSUB LaunchMissile


    PRINT "No. Can't do it."


    There. Now 'Code Inspective' budgets will have to quadruple.

    1. Magani

      Re: Another approach...

      Shouldn't that END be a RETURN?

      Sorry - couldn't help myself.

  4. Arthur 1

    Why doesn't he stop writing?

    Basically all violent causes stem from a philosophical writing. Maybe we should ask all philosophers to stop doing their thing? :/

    As was stated before, a dead drone probably worries the government MORE than a dead soldier, given the expense of a drone vs the expense of recruiting and training a warm body. I don't buy this guy's premise at all.

    And his conclusion is naturally out to lunch, he assumes that a) you believe all war is bad (how did he get a philosophy degree when he's willing to sweep that one under the rug as a given?) b) drones create more war and c) the presence of overwhelmingly offensive technology can't ever in fact prevent war. And that's just the tip of what's wrong.

    So yeah, no, I'm not going to pass on being able to pay the mortgage and eat if a military contract comes along so that this douchebag whose life is paid for by grants and an inflated professor's salary can sit on his largely detached from reality high horse, thanks.

    1. Arctic fox
      Thumb Down

      You were presenting your case legitmately (& effectively from your point of view)...........

      ......and I to some extent felt that you had a point. Right up until you wrote this:

      "..............that this douchebag whose life is paid for by grants and an inflated professor's salary can sit on his largely detached from reality high horse, thanks."

      Ad hominem attack combined with personal abuse. What happened? You were doing quite well up until that point. All you succeeded in doing was wreck any constructive-debate impact your posting might have had.

      1. The BigYin

        Re: You were presenting your case legitmately (& effectively from your point of view)...........

        @Arctic fox - just because someone resorts to an ad hominem does not invalidate the rest of their statement. That's woolly thinking - sorry.

        1. Arctic fox

          Re: "does not invalidate the rest of their statement." With respect I did not say that it.........

          ........invalidated that which he had written prior to the final paragraph*, I said "wreck any constructive-debate impact". In other words he, by that means, put a lot of people off who might otherwise have felt more well disposed towards his arguments. I am am assuming of course that one wishes to persuade rather than simply vent ones spleen?

          *I in fact said "I to some extent felt that you had a point"

    2. Thorne

      Re: Why doesn't he stop writing?

      "As was stated before, a dead drone probably worries the government MORE than a dead soldier, given the expense of a drone vs the expense of recruiting and training a warm body. I don't buy this guy's premise at all."

      No a dead drone is less of a worry. You can fix a drone or buy a new one. Soldiers on the other hand get hurt and then spend the next fifty years on a pention, untold cost of rehabilitation and doctors expenses not to mention public anger when they get hurt. I'm not saying they don't deserve it cause they do. My father is a Vietnam veteran so I've seen it first hand.

      Soldiers wouldn't be so bad if they got killed as it would be over and done with but the enemy knows a wounded soldier is a drain on resources so everything is geared to maim soldiers where possible.

      Nobody cares when a preditor gets shot down (except the accountants) but everyone cares when a soldier comes home with no legs. War are still going to happen because countries are still run by politicians.

      1. Curly4
        Big Brother

        Re: Why doesn't he stop writing?

        You are correct in that a it is easier to replace a drone than a person. Also the production of drones takes only a short time (relative) and it takes about 18 years to replace a solder.

        Now this ethicist thinks that engineers should stop working on robots. What is it unethical to work on robots and not on other types of weapons. Now ICBM have been a deterrent to the Cold War since they have been introduced. Mutual destruction you know. By this measure engineers should not have worked on the ICBMs. Now what could have been the result if the US in this case had not developed the ICBM and the other side did? If that had happened then the other side which did develop them would have demanded the other side to surrender and if they did not then could have destroyed that nation.

        What the ethicist should be working for is to elect an ethical leader who will not use the robots as has been stated that they would.

    3. The BigYin

      Re: Why doesn't he stop writing?

      @Arthur 1 - I put it to you that the military would prefer a dead solider to a wounded one. A dead one only costs them the funeral. A wounded one needs medical treatment, potentially life-long support and can have a devastating morale impact on their comrades. This is why some weapons are deliberately design to maim rather than kill. It's a sick sad world.

      As for this "douchebag" (nice ad hominem, by the way) it all depends on where you draw your moral line. There will be some jobs that would pay your mortgage which you would refuse to do on moral grounds; he's just asking you to think about where you draw that line.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Why doesn't he stop writing?

        @BigYin: speaking as a soldier, I prefer a wounded soldier to a dead one, and uninjured to either. The people who prefer dead soldiers are the bean-counters in government, not the military. Not even the top brass - because they were not always the top brass, and were on the firing line themselves.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Why doesn't he stop writing?

        @The BigYin "This is why some weapons are deliberately design to maim rather than kill."

        The use of weapons or tactics to injure rather than kill has been used for a long time because treatment and evacuation ties up resources (men, transport, etc.) in the battlefield during action, which is typically where/when such resources are in short supply. You might try to limit the damage inflicted by weaponry to both people and infrastructure, if it is likely that you will be be in charge once the fighting stops: you might have to repair the damaged infrastructure and you might need the former enemies to help achieve that.

    4. Don Jefe

      Re: Professors Salary

      Ha. Ha. Hahahahahaha. How much do you think professors get paid? At top US universities the department chairs rarely break $100k (US) INCLUDING time paid for grants & research.

      Show me a working professor who rakes in the bank and I'll show you where the water is in Texas.

      1. Sailfish

        Re: Professors Salary


        Also, that's 9 mo. work year and doesn't include the very lucrative benefits packages. $100K my arse!

        1. Tom 38 Silver badge

          Re: Professors Salary

          Er, you should really look at the data you linked at. Full professors tend to be making in the $100-$120k with a few outliers at the expensive end bringing the average right up.

          Histograms don't lie.

    5. ian 22

      Re: Why doesn't he stop writing?

      Wait, what about the factory worker who builds the weapons? What about the miner who digs out the ore that will be refined into metal to build the weapons? What about etc, etc, etc?

      All are complicit, or none are. There, how do you like that as an extreme statement? And yes, I have met people (young ones, admittedly) who espouse such positions.

    6. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Why doesn't he stop writing?

      "a dead drone probably worries the government MORE than a dead soldier"

      With drones you can have an endless war, but at your own pace. You don't have the colossal expense of keeping tens of thousands of soldiers in a war zone. You can operate from secure bases as and when it suits you.

      From a political POV it's not about cash, it's about headlines. Dead soldiers in a on-going military stalemate don't reflect well on those who sent them. Dead robots just get replaced a few years earlier than scheduled.

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  6. PsYcHoTiC_MaDmAn

    you don't want the decent people not working on it, all you get then are the unscrupulous "people" (there are many much better terms for it, but not in polite conversation.)

    what you want is the conscientious ones doing something like this (there is a copy on google books, but that is missing a few pages.) (hmm, seems I don't qualify for hot-linking though it says basic HTML is allowed)

  7. Don Jefe
    Thumb Up

    Bad Word

    Philosophy used to be the study of the universe. Now it has been downgraded to Hume & social science garbage. Like the Ðouche who said don't work on drones...

    In their era, philosophers were doing real research & advancing science & the body of human knowledge. Issac Newton considered himself a philosopher, not a scientist, as did Ben Franklin.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Bad Word

      Well, "science" used to be the study of how and why things work.

      Now much of it is stats with the pet theory of the day added on as the "reason."

    2. Richard IV

      Anachronistic Word

      The reason Newton and Franklin considered themselves (natural) philosophers rather than scientists is that we've only been using the word scientist for a little under 180 years, a good 40 years or so after Franklin died. Try looking up William Whewell on the intertubes for it was he who coined it.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Bad Word

      Yeah, it's not like Hume was a serious philosopher, is it?

  8. Field Commander A9

    Don't worry!

    We'll make sure the enemy don't steal the keys!

  9. Goat Jam

    "they won't incur any casualties on their own side"

    Also, drones and 'bots don't have any of the nasty baggage that some meat-bags possess.

    Things like a ethics, morals and empathy.

    These things have no place in a military whose goals are primarily driven by the craven pursuit of profit and imperialism.

    1. mjwalshe

      Re: "they won't incur any casualties on their own side"

      But drones are not robots they have human control (@drunkenpredator not with standing) - or would the Professor prefer the ww2 era approach of carpet bombing.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "they won't incur any casualties on their own side"

      OK I wouldn't say I'm "pro-drone" in any way, but at least they don't try to rape female squaddies in the bathrooms, leading to numerous cases of fatal dehydration because they know they have to avoid going to the latrines after 5pm or so.... or go armed and in pairs .....

  10. P. Lee

    Isn't most killtech designed to reduce your own casualties while maximising damage to the enemy, pretty much by definition. That's why we have machine-guns rather than swords - they kill at long range while the operators stay somewhere safe. Ditto, cannons.

    War is the natural extension of economic policy. The "Hail Mary" of a failing economy.

    Its usually combined with pride - "They can't do that to us!" or "We must return to our former glory!"

    1. dotdavid

      Actually most killtech is designed to reduce your own casualties and casualties to designated non-combatants while maximising damage to the enemy. There's a reason they put all those expensive chips in most missiles nowadays - if the objective was to just cause damage without harm to ourselves we'd be using carpet bombs a lot more.

      Dead civilians are almost as likely to cause war-weariness as dead soldiers (on your side).

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        No moral issue

        I looked at this before I started working in the industry.

        "If I use my skills to make a better, more targeted weapon, then there will be less collateral damage - I will have helped to save lives.

        If I use my skills to make a more effective defence tool, then there will be less weaponry reaching its target - I will have helped to save lives."

        The Predator, taken to its logical conclusion, can take out just the nasty dirtbag that needs removal without physically hurting anyone else. Precision is good, the political minds that control such precision is the problem.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: No moral issue

          I worked on military stuff back during the Falklands do. That seemed justifiable, but I really didn't like the military world view and got out afterwards. Years later I ended up working on some Afghan war stuff. I decided I liked that even less, so now avoid such jobs where I can.

          Unfortunately there seems to be lots of money in war and in spying on/controlling the population. Great for the MoD & Home Office people, for consultants and the defense industry; not so good for the ordinary soldier and pretty poor for whoever the target is this year. And it doesn't feel like we're the good guys much of the time.

          Just a personal view.

        2. This post has been deleted by its author

  11. Charles Manning

    Tosser arrogance causes more wars

    If they didn't have missiles, they'd use guns.

    If they didn't have guns they'd use spears.

    If they didn't have spears they'd use rocks.

    No rocks and they'd bite each other.

    More wars have been caused be philosophers and thinkers who insist they are right and should force their point of view onto others. How scrupulous were the crusaders who went to save the poor Muslims from their misguided selves?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Tosser arrogance causes more wars

      Think you are getting philosophers and thinkers mixed up with religious nut jobs.

      Power and Religion: Killing people since the dawn of man.

    2. This post has been deleted by its author

  12. Long John Brass

    Lets be honest

    Most of us got into computers & engineering with the dream of building ourselves killer robots

    I know I did :)

    Igor! Pull the lever ....

    1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson

      Igor! Pull the lever ...

      Yeth, Marthter!!!!!

  13. Eugene Crosser

    By the same reasoning...

    ... working on any armament should be a considered immoral. Any weapon (except a narrow case of suicidal weapons) is designed to give the wielder an upper hand, and consequently increase their chance to survive unharmed in the battle. And consequently (by the author's reasoning) increase the willingness of the government to engage in a war.

    He's just read the "Kill Decision", that's all.

    1. Thorne

      Re: By the same reasoning...

      God made us equal. Winchester made us more equal

  14. Robert E A Harvey


    I've walked out of 3 jobs because I didn't want to work on military hardware, and skipped a thousand or so job adverts.

    I still managed to pay off the mortgage, bring up 2 wonderful girls and design 3 things that are in the science museum.

    And now $MEGACORP pays me to travel the world and commission things the size of a house that do good stuff.

    1. James Hughes 1

      Re: Actually

      You appear quite fortunate then - most people will never get the chance to be as moral. I don;t know whether you;ve noticed, but there is a bit iof a recession on, unemployment is high, and jobs are scarce for any but the brightest.

      So what will happen - the brightest get the moral jobs, and the less well endowed in the smarts departments ones get to make armaments. Is that the right way round?

      1. Robert E A Harvey

        Re: Actually

        Not always fortunate - there were dead periods where I was reduced to doing red&blue tape PCB artworks on the kitchen table. Or plugging new cash register printers in at Tesco after midnight.

        I'm just saying that people should make their own choices. Maybe if I had been different I'd still be in charge of an R&D department instead of using a screwdriver and a torque wrench on a daily basis. Maybe I'd have earned more. But I earned enough, and can live with having designed control systems in the food and printing industry.

        I'm not sure that people do work on weapons systems without a certain amount of introspection: I know a few who did exactly that. I rather think this chap's advice is null. I think that most designers and developers know very well what they are doing. it would all get smelly very quickly if they didn't.

      2. This post has been deleted by its author

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Actually

      Wow - look out Jesus ...

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Can't say I disagree much

    I've always found the idea of deploying an automated killing machine in combat to be a repulsive and scary idea - and that's not just because I've watched Terminator too many times.

    I think that one balancing factor in land war is the risk of death to the combatants, so putting deathless troops in the field risks overkill (if not of troops, then of civilians).

    Drones - quite useful in the field, but shouldn't be used remotely by civilians (I do find that repulsive).

    Anyway, the bloke is only discussing ethics and how engineers who think a certain way can/should apply their ethics, so I won't criticise him.

    The trouble is, the sort of advances needed to do important stuff in places humans can't go do tend to have military applications, so I don't see a satisfactory solution to the dilemma - 'Ethics' vs 'Cool Engineering'.

    1. Bumpy Cat

      Re: Can't say I disagree much

      Hmmm. I see your point about balancing - make war costly to both sides and both sides will be more reluctant to fight.

      However, would you be willing to sign up to fight? Because saying "Make me safe, and make it dangerous for the people guarding me" sounds rather ... douchey, actually.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Can't say I disagree much

        However, would you be willing to sign up to fight? Because saying "Make me safe, and make it dangerous for the people guarding me" sounds rather ... douchey, actually.

        Well, it would be douchey if I actually thought like that, but I take your point. It is not sufficient to stand on one ethical point regardless of the situation.

        If we're talking defence, then I would sign up rather than rely on someone else dying for me (at least I hope I'd have the balls to) - but we'd have to be in deep shit for me to be accepted at my age.

        My concern is that if we make warfare more acceptable/sanitary using high-tech gear then we're encouraging the politicians to carry on as they have for centuries. Having said that - if (eg) French killbots invade these islands I damned-well would want us to deploy the same (but better, of course).

        Perhaps as a control all killbots should have one law embedded in them : 'politicians on either side are fair game regardless of the circumstances'.

        1. Bumpy Cat

          Re: Can't say I disagree much

          That's the problem we face - war is (unfortunately) still a threat, regardless of where you live and what you espouse. There's no point in hamstringing yourself in a war; the Hague and Geneva conventions are a big, big change from how wars were fought two hundred years ago, and to further limit yourself to give the other side a sporting chance is not going to win "Best Idea" prize. ;)

          There's an interesting paper from two Chinese officers which says that Islamic terrorism and Chinese cyber-warfare are the natural response to the current situation - NATO has such overwhelming superiority in conventional war (and even WMD!) that to fight NATO you have to resort to unconventional techniques.

          Anyway, I definitely agree with your last point. In fact, maybe we should just unleash the politician-hunting killbots now and save everyone a lot of trouble in future.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Can't say I disagree much

            I guess you're right about not hamstringing ourselves and the natural response to the current situation.

            Putting the two together I wouldn't be too unhappy if we developed the technology but kept it out of the field until absolutely necessary - ie we are in the shit unless we use it. If it is deployed at every opportunity then for sure the opposition will develop and use counter-measures, and we will remain on the seemingly endless cycle.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    One worrying thing about drones

    Aside from making it easier to start or fight wars, drones seem to to tempt their into sustained programmes of extra-judicial killing inside the border of countries they haven't declared war on. And there seems to be no international effort to respond to this.

    With drones getting smaller and smarter, we may end up in a world where any government is likely to launch a killbot against anybody, anywhere, that they don't like. Folks like Julian Assange will have to take refuge in bunkers (and not open the door to any visitors with suspiciously sharp cheekbones!)

  17. Christian Berger

    Helping those who got in

    Now the more urgent thing is to help those who slipped into such a job. Perhaps by first forking on one project then being transfered to another one.

    I believe we need some sort of "Exit" Organisation to help such people get out of those companies and get ethical jobs.

    Although I have to say that in Germany we are certainly quite well off. Competent people tend to avoid the military, that's why the computer based logistics system of the Bundeswehr doesn't even allow them to order toilet paper reliably.

    1. bonkers

      Re: Helping those who got in

      I like the positive suggestion of helping what we recognise as intelligent and considerate engineers out of an unfortunate circumstance. We should also warn against the dangers of “staying in”.

      The methods of working, the project timescales, even the raw components of defence work are utterly useless in the rest of the industry. Any fool can deliver half the product at twice the contract price, two years late.

      Finally, as an observation, I see many engineers with military backgrounds as though their psychological development just stopped somewhere along the line. Is this a response to the irresolvable contradiction of wanting to be “nice” yet focussing one’s life work on death to others? Is it similar to neutered dogs becoming permanent puppies? Why do so many profess religious beliefs, often through the codewords of church activity, choir singing etc.

      If we were in a WWII situation again, and I were making equipment just for us, I would do it. But, we’re not. Weapons is big business and they get sold to the strong to oppress and steal from the weak. Engineers entering this world need to consider not just the grief that they will add to the world burden, but also the positive things that they will not be making, will never make.

      1. Christian Berger

        Re: Helping those who got in

        True, but entering such fields is often not a voluntary decision. It's just to easy to slide into such things.

        Maybe we also need to create the culture where people think more about what jobs they accept, but then again, your job might start harmless and then become unethical.

        For example I started my job assuming that the company I work at was not in the esotherics business. And it fact it seemed harmess, however the longer I work there the more I get dragged into designing for esotheric products (you know earth rays, etc). Changing a job is not trivial, there are no other employers in that area, and the market for electrical engineers outside of weapons systems is very small in the country where I live. I know it's no way as unethical as designing drones, however keeping people from thinking and learning is not a great thing to do.

        Getting out of such a job may be feasible, but you still need another job for bread winning.

      2. Toastan Buttar

        Re: Helping those who got in

        "The methods of working, the project timescales, even the raw components of defence work are utterly useless in the rest of the industry."

        I beg to differ. Worked for 20 years developing simulators and trainers for a well-known UK defence contractor. Now I use that simulation knowledge developing software models for a commercial semiconductor company. Your argument is invalid (yet you still got a handful of upvotes - weird).

        I found the UK military to be incredibly professional, disciplined and also very courteous to we civvy engineers. I'd far rather our military branches were better equipped and protected as a direct result of my work than some enemy state. Sure, I'd like war to be eradicated and for the military machine to rust away as a forgotten relic of man's inhumanity to man. I'd also like every home issued with a cute puppy and free electricity. Dunno which will happen first.

        1. bonkers
          Thumb Up

          Re: Helping those who got in

          You were working on commercial quality machines though, not weapons. These are much closer to the mainstream industry as they are made from standard - not mil-spec - parts, which do not need the exhaustive testing. Also, simulators are mostly a software product, so can accommodate changes.

          I have nothing against the military personnel, we need them and most are very good - even when contradicting their seniors, like the MoD man who backed the anti land mine campaign saying they were a liability in real conflict - whereas he was expected to say that our good ol' boys (and particularly the sacred arms biz) needed and wanted them. I know simulators and trainers are non-lethal, but they still get sold to some pretty oppressive regimes don't they? I think we agree that this should not happen, defence work should be just that, and our kit should be best. That all said, I think there are much better things that one can do with one's life output - and this was the point, we should help engineers get out if they want to.

      3. Thorne

        Re: Helping those who got in

        "Weapons is big business and they get sold to the strong to oppress and steal from the weak"

        Actually Weapon manufacturers sell to both side. Actually they'll sell to anyone. They'll even start the fight so they can sell to both sides

  18. Steven Roper


    You can't simply stop warfare by telling people not to work on munitions - World War II illustrates this perfectly. If you doubt it, consider this: some of the scientists working on the Manhattan Project considered the possibility that an uncontrolled nuclear explosion in the open might contaminate the Earth's atmosphere and eradicate all life on Earth. Despite this possibility, they went ahead and tested it anyway, and hang the consequences. If these "boffins" were prepared to risk the destruction of all life on Earth in their pursuit of more effective weaponry, what makes anyone think that the prospect of a mere dystopian horror future is any kind of discouragement?

    However, things balance out. People like the Rosenbergs, who were executed as traitors for providing atomic bomb secrets to the Soviets, actually did humanity a great service by ensuring that others besides the trigger-happy USA had the Bomb, and thus vastly reduced the possibility of nuclear war through the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction. If the Americans had remained the only ones with nuclear weapons, with no other country having any effective countermeasures, I'd bet 10 years' pay Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have only been the first of many nuclear targets; Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East would in all likelihood be glowing glass wastelands by now if the USA believed it could deploy nuclear weapons without fear of like retaliation.

    With robotic weaponry, a balance will also be struck. Countermeasures will be devised the moment these things start to become a problem for anyone with the ability to develop such countermeasures. Iran has already shown us that this is possible, with the drone they downed and captured and which the USA so ardently denied was anything consequential.

    Those with a need to protect themselves against such devices will certainly do so, and the solutions will invariably be much simpler than the robotic systems themselves. I picture radio jamming devices, which cut off the drones from their controllers; laser pointers to blind or damage the cameras mounted on them; microwave beam emitters to fry the circuitry controlling them (didn't a bunch of boffins just recently demonstrate a powerful room-temperature maser? That has some potential...!)

    Remember, it is easier to destroy than to create; a principle which in this case works against the complicated systems of robotic ordnance.

    I am reminded of Arthur C. Clarke's solution to orbiting weapons satellites; he said the best way to get rid of them would be to simply launch a rocket with a payload of ordinary sand, to be dumped into the path of the satellites. The high relative velocities of satellite and sand grains means that as soon as the satellite hits the sand it would be shredded like a tomato in a sandblaster.

    And I am reminded of a Commodore 64 cracking crew I was in contact with back in the 80s; a well-known game house had spent thousands of dollars and more than six months developing a DRM system to prevent copying of their games; this cracking crew broke it in less than 10 minutes for no cost. That's months of work and thousands of dollars rendered useless in minutes!

    So I'm certain that the more these robotic weapons are developed, the quicker people will develop countermeasures. And those countermeasures will be something cheaper and more readily available than the robots they are intended to fuck over. Instead of pleading with engineers not to work on robotic weapons, which is an exercise in futility, get other engineers to develop ways of counteracting them. I'll be interested to see what creative anti-robot measures people come up with.

    For what man can make, man can break.

    1. mjwalshe

      Re: Balance

      The whole set the atmosphere on fire was a non starter from a theoretical perspective.

      1. Peter2 Silver badge

        Re: Balance

        To be honest, I think anybody who thinks that those scientists believed that the entire atmosphere would burn off wasn't paying sufficient attention to the fire triangle at primary school.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    All projectile weapons allow killing at a distance. Do we ban ICBMs? cruise missiles? shells? Cannon, balisters?

  20. TrishaD

    We Dont Need ...

    The viewpoint best expressed as 'We dont need no steenking philosophers' is probably evidence that we do.

    1. dotdavid

      Re: We Dont Need ...

      MAJIKTHISE: We’ll go on strike!

      VROOMFONDEL: That’s right. You’ll have a national philosopher’s strike on your hands.

      DEEP THOUGHT: Who will that inconvenience?

      MAJIKTHISE: Never you mind who it’ll inconvenience you box of black legging binary bits! It’ll hurt, buster! It’ll hurt!

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: We Dont Need ...

      Not really, science is important, but isn't the be all and end all. Science doesn't give you law. Science doesn't give you moral frameworks with which to live your life. Science doesn't give you art. In fact Science all stems from philosophy, if there were no philosophy, there would be no logic and no computing.

      (There was an excellent In Our Time on Logic, it's still available for download from BBC Radio 4. It goes from Aristotle to Turing and beyond.)

  21. The BigYin

    I guess the problem is the investment

    The military pays for the development of the Remote Ultra-Kill 9000 Drone that can carry 14 Mega-death missiles and 5 Maim-o-matic bombs, plus laser targeting etc. It can fly for 24 hours and does not always need a remote pilot (it has UAV capabilities at auto-target recognition).

    It is, in short, a very nasty piece of work and can wipe out entire villages without any help.


    It can carry a payload, fly itself and find "targets"...change the payload and change the purpose. Rebranded as Cuddles-From-Above its brethren are now sent out to scan remote area for lost skiers, hikers etc and drop aid to them, as well as report their position. They patrol the coast looking for oil spills, people in distress etc. Maybe they have "Don't panic" painted on their underbellies?

    And that, unfortunately, is the problem. We are a potentially violent species, we elect/promote psychopaths to seats of power (no really, we do) and thus our ability for violence and domination is valued above our other traits. You can see this everywhere and in everything; short-term gain Vs long-term gain - short-term always wins. Even winning a war is a short-term gain because the cycle will repeat. I give you...well...the Middle East at the moment.

    It would be nice to live in La-la-land, but we are stuck here in reality for just a bit longer.

    1. Phil Endecott

      Re: I guess the problem is the investment

      > its brethren are now sent out to scan remote area for lost skiers, hikers etc and drop aid to them,

      The best example of this is space exploration. Looking back, it's pretty clear that the development of "peaceful" rockets in "space race" era of the 50s and 60s was a way to get skilled engineers to work on ICBMs without having to worry their conscience.

      1. JimC

        > a way to get skilled engineers to work on ICBMs

        Isn't there at least as mcuh evidence that engineers used ICBMS to get politicians to pay for work on space exploration?

  22. Paw Bokenfohr

    It seems to me the point is...

    ...that people who work on these military research projects should not kid themselves that their work will not lead to someone, somewhere, being killed.

    Whether that is a problem for them is entirely a matter of personal choice, but in the same way as if I were to be working on software for baby incubators and were careless and that lead to deaths I'd be partially responsible (along with the people whose jobs it would have been to check my work) so too those engineers working on "kill-bots" are partly responsible, along with the operators, and politicians.

    There's really no escaping that unless we all divorce ourselves of all personal responsibility for anything we do.

    The only choice we have is whether we work on those projects at all, and if someone has a problem with the ethics of the final product, they shouldn't work on its construction.

    That just seems like common sense to me, and is nothing to do with stopping wars, the military-industrial complex, or any tin-foil hat conspiracy issue, or anything. Just personal choice.

  23. JimC

    Seems to me

    That the drone is just the high tech equivalent of the terrorist/freedom fighter with a bomb.The effect is much the same - a relatively small explosion, targeted to a greater or lesser extent, whilst those resposnible for directing it sit at home out of direct contact and are difficult to identify and target.

    On the whole its probably not as bad as both sides committing 50 thousand troops to a land battle and devastating thousands of square miles of countryside, which was the old fashioned way of doing it. But there's an interesting point about declaring war and the nature of war. If its not a declaration of war to "allow" your citizens to wander into another country carrying explosives and blow things up - or even "allow" your citizens to donate the money that permits such activity, then there's a certain logic to suggest that having robots do exactly the same thing isn't "war" either.

  24. RainForestGuppy

    But in the real world

    Sparrow thinks engineers “can agree that we would all be better served if robots were being researched, designed and built to confront some of the urgent social and environmental challenges facing humanity today"

    OK I build a drone that can scan disaster zones for life signs and report the position back to rescuers. I can sleep happy in my bed feeling I'v made a difference. But If somebody buys one of my drones and puts a couple of bombs on it, am I then evil

    What the good doctor forgets is that any technology can be subverted.

    This is the whole problem with a lot of this type of thinking. In a social utopia (or Gene Roddenburys view of the future) we all have enough to eat, we all do our bit for society, every thing is great, there is no need for people to steal or kill or be mean. Right??

    Wrong Unfortuently humans are greedy, lazy, etc. In the social utopia there is always somebody who wants more than everybody else or who wants power over other people, and that's where the system breaks down.

    If we destroyed all weapons today, there would still be somebody who picks up a 'peaceful' spade and beats their neighbour to death.

  25. Gordon Pryra

    How do engineeers know?

    Forgive me if I am being stupid, but on big projects, each part is overseen by a different team, in fact the components that link the different components are probably worked on by different people.

    WIth security on this kind of hardware being paramount, I doubt if the engineers even know they are working on the left propeller for a shepard killer.

    Anyway, Dr Robert Sparrow is probably a yellow coward who wouldn't go over the top with all the other heros!!

    White feather for him methinks!!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: How do engineeers know?

      I think that is true to a point, compartmentalising the information is important, but I think everyone knows from the design documentation from which they have to work what the system is. It might be they don't get to see the classified documents pertaining to the detailed design of another subsystem within the system.

      But systems integration still needs to take place which requires a good understanding of the whole system.

      Even the systems integrators may not need to know about the intimate details of all components, they'll be looking at it from a point of view of the interface control documents, the interfaces between the subsystems and components, and will often treat much of it as a black box.

  26. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

    Rage against machines never works

    You can't stop progress and you shouldn't try. The role and potential importance of drones is as yet unclear but it is in human nature to want to try anything new and see what may come out of it.

    At the moment the UAVs and UCAVs are only suitable for observation and assassinations. They don't stand a chance of working effectively or even surviving in a real combat situation (where you are fighting against an equal opponent and not just blasting away wedding parties or sheep herders).

    I am sure that all major militaries in the world took notice of the potential inconvenience of the hostile flying cameras and remote controlled rocket launchers on the battlefield, so countermeasures will be developed (are being developed) to make sure that in a real combat situation these things will be swatted out of the sky the moment they appear there. At the same time, being our of Iraq already and with the imminent withdrawal from Afganistan the money flows from the US budget to the UAV industry will dry out pretty quickly.

    My expectation is that further development of drones will move along the path of the least resistance - i.e. adopting the technology for use against our own civilians. That is - police surveillance, spying on fly tippers, tracking Assange, making nude celebrity photos etc. Military applications will remain seriously limited.

    However, development of innovative flying tech and the associated control systems, especially semi- and fully autonomous ones, will greatly benefit other areas - such as ground and air vehicles controls, space exploration etc.

  27. Sean Timarco Baggaley

    Dear Dr. Sparrow,

    Telling other people how they should think, and attempting to impose your own morality and ethics on others, rarely ends well. Our species has a long history of people attempting to do precisely this.

    Many organised religions have an explicit "Don't kill people!" rule that even their own adherents seem incapable of understanding. If they can't even understand basic sentences like that, using words with more syllables is unlikely to help.

    Tens of thousands of people die every year on our roads—and many more are injured—yet nobody seems to care enough about that to do anything particularly useful about it. Compared to those numbers, a few hundred volunteer soldiers getting killed in a faraway land isn't even going to register.




    1. The Baron

      Dear Mr Baggaley

      I suspect that Dr. Sparrow is offering an opinion and making suggestions, not attempting to impose his own morality and ethics on others. I may be wrong, of course.

      Incidentally, the number of people dying every year on our roads - at least in civilized countries - has dropped significantly over time, suggesting that a significant number of people do, in fact, care enough about it to do something useful. For example, in Great Britain, the number of people killed or seriously injured in road accidents per year was around 50,000 in 1994 and fell to around 25,000 in 2011, this despite a ~25% rise in traffic in the same period (1).

      There were 1850 people killed on British roads in 2010 (2), and 103 British servicepeople killed in Afghanistan in the same period (3). The latter is a smaller number, certainly, but it does represent 5% of the total, which I would suggest is high enough "to register", if I might borrow your terminology.

      Incidentally I have no particular philosophical axe to swing here, one way or the other... just providing some context.







      1. Toastan Buttar

        Re: Dear Mr Baggaley

        Why isn't he recommending that engineers don't work on automobile engines? Thousands of innocent people die each year as a result of their use.

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    value alignment

    As a freelance consultant I choose not to prostitute myself to employers in the pharmaceutical, defense or processed food industries. My personal values are not congruent with the values of those organizations and that leads to stress which I choose to avoid.

    1. JimC

      Re: value alignment

      Just as a matter of interest, what industries are compatible with your values? Personally, for instance, I regard finance and advertising in their current states as being rather less morally acceptable than pharmaceuticals or processed food.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: value alignment

        I don't know of any big corporations that I admire. Aren't they all immoral by nature? I define a moral as a principle that supports life. Ethics merely being codes of conduct - usually executed without any respect for morals. Big Pharma, Defense and Food make me most uncomfortable. I work in the ERP arena and there aren't many local small businesses that require big systems. I minimize my stress and stick to consumer electronics and engineering until I can get out completely and do something of value and not contribute to the pile of crap that we've created.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: value alignment

          I don't know of any big corporations that I admire. Aren't they all immoral by nature?

          The Co-Operative?

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: value alignment

            Co-op - try telling that to a dairy farmer who has done business with them.

        2. Steven Roper
          Thumb Up

          Re: Admirable corporations

          There is actually a corporation that I do like, if not admire, and that's Advanced Micro Devices, more commonly known in geek circles as AMD. Their pro-hacker (in the true sense of the word) philosophy, keeping their CPUs overclockable and offering replacements if you send back your blown-up ones for them to study, is indicative of a company whose main interest is the science and engineering behind their product, rather than mere profit. Of course, that doesn't mean they aren't in it for the money - they have to be, by law - but they do put a priority on advancing the technology over gaining simple market volume (or snatching their patent toys out of everyone's reach like some companies I can think of). This makes AMD a geek amongst corporations!

    2. Robert E A Harvey

      Re: value alignment

      I would say that it is perfectly possible to design machines to automate the traditional cheese making methods, or pasturise cream, without producing cheese triangles from dairy waste.

      The production of flour has been mechanised for millenia, it doesn't have to be assosciated with pop tarts.

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Nothing new under the sun.

    “Spears are making it easier for governments to start wars, thinking that they won't incur any casualties on their own side."

  30. Often Confused

    Think he's

    How can he have the gaul to post a challange against engineers working on defense contracts using a medium originally designed as a militarty communications tool (ie the internet - tho to be fair, DARPAnet originally).

    He clearly doesn't understand that peace is won by the guy with the biggest stick, hence why the western world has been able to expand and influence the world. - Even politics is an extension of this concept, otherwise the Monster Raving Loony Party would win every time, with all of their 0 constituencies.

    He is clearly crazy and needs to be ignored, or has been quoted and taken out of context.

  31. JOKM

    Fast Forward

    Instead of spending a fortune R&Ding drones we should fast forward the tech untill we have the 2 countries/combatants sitting on a sofa playing Street Fighter II, where every loss means the other gets a 5 mile tract of land shaved off your border, and 10'000 civilians executed. Well maybe not that last bit.

    1. JohnG

      Re: Fast Forward

      This assumes that wars work like video games i.e. according to a well defined set of rules. The reality would that sooner or later, someone else would come along with a lot of heavily armed people and kill all those playing Street Fighter and anyone else who disagreed with them and take whatever they wanted - that's how war works.

  32. h4rm0ny

    One of the great things about weaponised robots... that you can use them on your own population much more easily. Try to use the army to supress your own population and they will to some extent, but you'll have problems. But a robot can be turned on rioters or protestors just as easily as it can be turned on the enemy. And with centralized control, you need fewer people who are willing to authorise it, than you would need all your rank and file to be willing. Enemy soldiers or children in a crowd, it's all the same to a robot.

  33. JeffUK

    this 'ethicist' assumes that warfare is always unethical.

    It's never nice, but most of the wars we get into are, ethically speaking, the best of a bad bunch of options.

    1. Christian Berger

      Uhm... not really

      I mean there may be a just war, but it's certainly not the majority.

  34. Miami Mike

    Sorry, but we DO need some steenkin weapons

    OK, so we finally got all the governments in the world to sit down and say that they renounce war. Great. Except one lies and keeps all their hardware. Guess who now rules the world? The state of human development is simple at this point in our history: "Those who beat their swords into plowshares will plow for those who don't."

    If all the governments actually do accept and honor this, what do you do about the Somali pirates? Sit them down for tea and talk to them about the error of their ways? How about the Taliban as they destroy the temples and shrines of everyone else? What about Pot Pol, who decided to kill all his own people?

    Humanity is too immature to be trusted with weapons, but since we already have them, I want to be on the side with the biggest, baddest ones of all. "Peace through superior firepower" is a workable solution, just hope the side with the superior firepower has some acquaintance with morals and ethics, even a slight one will do. Imagine what your choice of psychotic third-world-dictator-for-life (say, Mugabe? or Assad?) might do if HE were in control, perhaps the nasty, evil, greedy capitalists in the UK and the US might not be so awful after all. Good solution, ugh, but probably the least worst solution. Remember,Churchill said that the Americans will eventually do the right thing (after we've tried everything else). Better late than never, because there are some governments which will NEVER do the right thing.

    1. Often Confused

      Re: Sorry, but we DO need some steenkin weapons

      I think with bigger weapons comes the luxuary and necessity of being able to afford morals.

  35. cphi

    and drones differ from other weapons how exactly ?

    The purpose of _every_ weapon system is to maximise enemy casualties and minimise your own. I struggle to think of a single exception... (maybe DU slugs?). The only difference with drones is that we have them and they don't. This happy state of affairs won't remain. And while I hate ad hominem attacks there is something particularly grating about those conceited enough to call themselves ethicists - as if this gives them any special insights (clearly not as this case demonstrates...)

  36. Tom 38 Silver badge

    International Committee for Robot Arms Control

    Why stop at the arms? I want to control their legs too, make their ears wiggle, shake their little android heads from side to side...

  37. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    ...or more importantly learn to whack ethicists on crack

    If the philosophers could make everything in the world right and eliminate all evil, we wouldn't need drones or robots or other devices that save many human lives while taking out the trash.

  38. TkH11


    I don't have any such concerns over the morality, working on MoD projects has provided me with some of my best experience and taught me a lot about how to design, develop systems properly.

    Admittedly, the systems I've developed aren't really designed to kill people. If I wasn't doing it, somebody else is going to do it, all that will happen, in the event many of us engineers turn down the work, the salaries will increase according to the supply and demand principle and somebody is eventually going to take the job, so the job still gets done and the weapon systems are still developed; so the way I see it, by adopting an 'ethical' standpoint it doesn't achieve anything and you just miss out on some valuable and great career building experiences.

  39. naive Silver badge

    Maybe the army will make computers useful

    If the predictions in "the singularity is near" from Raymond Kurzweil are true, then this could be an useful development. Once billions start pouring into the development of powerful robots that can take unassisted combat decisions, other applications will benefit from this too. Maybe new computer products will then be devices that can do something more then just display square tiles in all colours and send messages. If intelligent drones and Terminator type robots can be built in sufficient quantities, advanced societies finally can win guerrilla wars in under developed countries and provide enough policing capacity to keep our cities safe.

  40. CmdrX3

    Give me robots any day

    I would rather it was robots getting killed in war than our troops. It may not reduce deaths on the enemy front, but it sure as hell reduces them on ours. As General Patton once very wisely said.

    "The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his"

    Now I'm not exactly a lover of war, but if we are going to be in one, then I'm damn sure I want to make sure we are on the winning side of it.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Give me robots any day

      We don't have "any" real wars, and these devices aren't intended for them.

  41. Joe Pineapples

    As a famous robot sniper

    One shot from me saved the planet from the nasy Volgans.

    That is all.

    1. Joe Pineapples

      Re: As a famous robot sniper

      Oh, and I stopped Mek-Quake

  42. Sailfish

    Si vis pacem, para bellum

    "If you wish for peace, prepare for war"

    No less true today than it was in Medieval Ages.

    Philosophers today are weenies.

  43. Trollslayer

    For someone so mart he seems pretty dumb

    Let me give you an opposing exmaple from Libya.

    Gaddafi had an awful lot of air defences particularly missiles and these needed to be taken out to prevent aircrew casualties so the aircrew could take out the reinforced ammo dumps, thus reducing the mercenaries ability to slaughter civilians.

    A drone was sent ot take out an anti-aircraft missile site and theoperators found it was in a built up area and a couple of kids were playing beside it.

    Since drones have a long flying time - no crew or related arour weight - they put it in a parking orbit for ten mibutes, keeping an eye on the target .

    Kids went ot play somewhere else then the operators brought the drone back in, fired a small missile and took that site out without ANY casualties.

    But hey, let this guy sit in his ivory tower instead. As with many 'experts' he isn't one.

  44. Glen Turner 666

    Drones are fine

    I've worked for a military contractor. Basically, you end up trusting that the government will use your tools well, just as people in the military trust that the government will put them in harm's way for a worthwhile cause. It's impossible to say in advance if you yourself might agree about some future conflict-- when my weapons were used in East Timor against a group of military thugs who were killing people for fun I couldn't have been happier.

    Some projects obviously carry more ethical issues than others, and all the firms I worked for were open in their acknowledgement of that and were supportive of individual's decisions not to work on particular projects on ethical grounds. This was not only generosity, it was a government requirement for the access to projects in the secret and above classifications, so as to minmise the risk of betrayal.

    The ethical question about drones is simple enough: in a just war is it wrong for a just participant to use that weapon. You can certainly make that case for nuclear weapons, for some types of land mines, and for some finishings of small bombs (making them look like toys, etc). I can't see that you can make the case for drones.

    This isn;t to say that drones have no ethical issues. But that the issues are far more subtle than those presented by the ethicist. For example, automatic tracking and fire raises the potential for firing on civilians, and yet allows the drone to engage an enemy under cover.

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