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Negotiating autonomy and responsibility in military robots


Central to the ethical concerns raised by the prospect of increasingly autonomous military robots are issues of responsibility. In this paper we examine different conceptions of autonomy within the discourse on these robots to bring into focus what is at stake when it comes to the autonomous nature of military robots. We argue that due to the metaphorical use of the concept of autonomy, the autonomy of robots is often treated as a black box in discussions about autonomous military robots. When the black box is opened up and we see how autonomy is understood and ‘made’ by those involved in the design and development of robots, the responsibility questions change significantly.

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  1. Hellstrom argues not exactly that autonomous robots will be responsible but that we will be inclined to consider them responsible when they are responsive to praise and blame. Asaro (2007) entertains the possibility of robots being legally liable and subject to punishment by comparing legal liability for robots to the legal liability of corporations. Wallach (2013) suggests that: “If and when robots become ethical actors that can be held responsible for their actions, we can then begin debating whether they are no longer machines and are deserving of some form of personhood.”

  2. There are exceptions to this as in the case of Matthias (2004) who specifies several different kinds of programming that are considered autonomous.

  3. In its Report on Technological Horizons, the Office of the Chief Scientist of the U.S. Air Force concludes that the single greatest theme to emerge from the report “is the need, opportunity, and potential to dramatically advance technologies that can allow the Air Force to gain the capability increases, manpower efficiencies, and cost reductions available through far greater use of autonomous systems in essentially all aspects of Air Force operations” (2010, p. ix).

  4. A Task Force of the U.S. Defense Science Board defined autonomy as “a capability (or a set of capabilities) that enables a particular action of a system to be automatic or, within programmed boundaries, “self-governing.””(U.S. DoD 2012).

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This paper was written with support from the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1058457.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. The authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback on earlier versions of this paper.

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Correspondence to Merel Noorman.

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Noorman, M., Johnson, D.G. Negotiating autonomy and responsibility in military robots. Ethics Inf Technol 16, 51–62 (2014).

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  • Autonomy
  • Responsibility
  • Military robots