Friday, January 27, 2012

New "Advance" in US Drone "Capabilities"

As reported in the LA Times, the US Navy is now testing a new drone with "capabilities" that raise serious questions, once again, about accountability.

The Navy's new drone being tested near Chesapeake Bay stretches the boundaries of technology: It's designed to land on the deck of an aircraft carrier, one of aviation's most difficult maneuvers.

What's even more remarkable is that it will do that not only without a pilot in the cockpit, but without a pilot at all.

The X-47B marks a paradigm shift in warfare, one that is likely to have far-reaching consequences. With the drone's ability to be flown autonomously by onboard computers, it could usher in an era when death and destruction can be dealt by machines operating semi-independently.

Although humans would program an autonomous drone's flight plan and could override its decisions, the prospect of heavily armed aircraft screaming through the skies without direct human control is unnerving to many.

"Lethal actions should have a clear chain of accountability," said Noel Sharkey, a computer scientist and robotics expert. "This is difficult with a robot weapon. The robot cannot be held accountable. So is it the commander who used it? The politician who authorized it? The military's acquisition process? The manufacturer, for faulty equipment?"

Sharkey and others believe that autonomous armed robots should force the kind of dialogue that followed the introduction of mustard gas in World War I and the development of atomic weapons in World War II. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the group tasked by the Geneva Conventions to protect victims in armed conflict, is already examining the issue.

"The deployment of such systems would reflect … a major qualitative change in the conduct of hostilities," committee President Jakob Kellenberger said at a recent conference. "The capacity to discriminate, as required by [international humanitarian law], will depend entirely on the quality and variety of sensors and programming employed within the system."

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