Just over two years ago I released a Huffington Post article about the just-announced Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. The ultimate goal of an effort such as this campaign is to start a public discourse about just what sort of role technology should and should not play in the lethality of war. The strongly defensible argument has been that we are charging headlong into an age when autonomous war machines will make decisions about killing humans, and that the logic justifying this lethal trust in robotic technology is highly suspect. I was very pleased to hear from Clearpath Robotics that, through their own soul-searching research of this issue, they have decided to sign on with the campaign, pledging not to make autonomous killer robots. Without a doubt, this decision has short-term impact on this company's business potential, as they operate directly in the space of autonomous field robotics with military customers front and center.
Clearpath announced their ban on killer robot manufacturing with an exclusive in Business Insider, and the full text of cofounder Ryan Gariepy's open letter on his reasoning is reprinted in their press release on-site.
The statement is powerful, as Gariepy is not apologizing for their development of military robotics in the least; rather, he is noting the significant, "horrific" consequences of robots that make the autonomous decision to kill us. He is evaluating the best and worst cases, and is reaching a conclusion that is a first for such a company: the ethical consequences of inventing killer robots dominate the equation and justify a loss in potential company profits.
To be sure, there will be a slippery slope, with robots that react faster than a human can possibly evaluate and approve their actions. Policymakers and international law specialists will argue as to whether these systems are autonomous or merely faster than human reaction speed by necessity (think of near-autonomous anti-missile systems). But the fact that technology is slippery and ever-changing need not convince us to take our eyes off the prize: let's avoid autonomous killer robots in any form. Killing is a devastating act, and there is no good reason for us to cede control to machines on this front.