There are risks and downsides of weaponized artificial intelligence (AI), but there are upsides too. Robots offer greater precision in attacks, reduced risk of collateral damage to civilians, and reduced risk of “friendly fire”. AI weapons are not being developed as weapons of mass destruction. They are being developed as weapons of precise destruction. Military AI facilitates ever greater precision and ever greater compliance with international humanitarian law. There are at least three ways robots can save lives in war.
Bomb disposal robots reduce risk to humans. Mostly remotely operated, they have little autonomy and are used to investigate and defuse or detonate improvised explosive devices.
As robots become more dexterous and agile there will come a time when there is no need for a human to be next to a bomb to defuse it.
Room by room clearing is one of the riskier infantry tasks. In World War II, pressure sensors under whiskey bottles and packets of cigarettes triggered booby traps. Human troops entering houses often succumbed to the allure of smokes and booze and killed.
Today ISIS fighters disguise booby traps as bricks and stones. International humanitarian law specifically prohibited these.
In theory, with smaller versions of sensors of the kind used to inspect luggage at airports, robots could perceive the wiring and pressure sensors associated with such booby traps.
Robots like the Pointman Tactical Robot and the iRobot Negotiator are already capable of entering buildings, climbing stairs and moving over obstacles to search buildings.
More agile humanoid (or animal-like) versions of these robots can help to clear buildings of booby traps and enemy fighters seeking to ambush troops.
Maintaining safety zones
It’s plausible that robots could contribute to maintaining perimeter security in the near future.
Military robot technology could be used to enforce safe havens that protect unarmed civilian refugees from genocides similar to those that happened in Srebrenica and Rwanda, and unlawful bombing as is ongoing in Syria.
Much of the technology you could use is already available “off the shelf” from equipment vendors. Surface-to-air missile defense systems that can target missiles, aircraft and artillery shells such as Raytheon’s Patriot and Phalanx have been in production for decades.
Machines have achieved superhuman performance in the games Chess, Jeopardy and Go. With sufficient research, superhuman performance in ethics may become possible too.
Robots are a double-edged sword. Used badly, they can perpetrate genocide and war crimes. Used well, they can prevent them.