Autonomous armed drones โ€“ In the loop or on the loop?

The current debate about the dangers of fully automatic weapon systems is particularly important. An underestimated aspect however is the extent to which the already existing unmanned weapon systems like armed drones can quite easily be further developed into nearly automatic systems in which the human role in the decision making process is just symbolic.

An interesting view on this question is offered by Marcel Dickow, an expert of the German Institute  for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. He took part in a public hearing of the Defence Commision in the Bundestag on June 30, 2014. In his statement he advised against the acquisition of weapon systems that have an inherent tendency to be further developed in the direction of an automatic system. According to him, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) can be bought, but only for intelligence and reconnaissance.

In an older article from February 2013 (with Hilmar Linnenkamp) Dickow develops the position more fully. The essence of the matter is as follows:

“The trend toward automatisation and autonomisation of flying platforms, likewise data evaluation, is also changing the role of the human protagonist. If until now he has adopted a position within the decision-making process of being “in the loop”, he will thereafter become a mere observer and confirmer of an approach determined by machines “on the loop”. This can already be said of reconnaissance systems which are being deployed linked in with weapons on other platforms. The data, on which the machines’ decisions are based, are here too so comprehensive and complex that they cannot be absorbed by people in real time.
It can be foreseen that, with coming generations of armed unmanned aerial systems, humans will merely stand at the end of a chain of options pre-selected by machine, whose origins he cannot penetrate. In addition the weapons (not the weapons platforms) will take electronically guided decisions in consultation with the respective platforms fractions of seconds before impact, in which humans will no longer be able to intervene due to their relatively long reaction time. It is for instance conceivable that the weapon makes a facial identification of the target whilst in the air.”

So it is not only important to fight against killer-robots but also against the tendency for the operators to become more or less peripheral observers of military machines “on the loop”. The real dividing line is between surveillance drones and armed drones, not between drones and robots.

Kees Kalkman