As I wrote here, a peaceful protest in Dallas, Texas last week turned tragic when sniper and former military veteran Micah Johnson launched a coordinated attack that killed 5 police officers and wounded 12.
Johnson hid himself in a parking garage and exchanged shots with the police. After hours of negotiations, the suspect proclaimed that he wanted to “kill white people, especially white officers.” To prevent future bloodshed, Dallas police sent a robot bomb to the gunman’s position. The bomb detonated and the suspect died early Friday morning.
The gunman obviously needed to be stopped, but the decision to kill him using a bomb-delivering robot raises numerous ethical and legal questions.
First of all, does the method of killing matter if deadly force is justified? Of course it does. Imagine if the robot had used a flamethrower or thrown acid at the gunman.
“Death by bombing is much more characteristic of bloodthirsty dictatorships, such as North Korea, not civilized society,” writes Dr. Patrick Lin, director of the Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic State University. Many weapons, including glass bullets and poison, are banned under international humanitarian law, and a movement is growing to ban autonomous weapons systems (i.e. “killer robots”).
Another issue with the use of such weapons is the fragile trust that exists between criminal suspects and police negotiators.
They say there’s nothing more dangerous than a desperate man. How much more desperate would a criminal be if he suspected the police might turn on him at any moment and send a robot to blow him up?
“I am worried about how the possibilities created by emerging technologies reframe our perceptions of what is ‘necessary’ when it comes to the projection of lethal force,” says University of Ottawa Law and Philosophy Professor Ian Kerr.
Professor Kerr’s words echo a growing nationwide concern that police are too quick to use violence, especially against minorities. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has capitalized on this concern, making criminal justice and police reform central topics of her campaign.
“A primary goal of police officers, besides protecting the public, is to capture suspects so that they can stand trial. Criminal suspects – again, presumed innocent until proven guilty – are not enemy combatants, and police officers are not judge, jury, nor executioners,” writes Lin.
Lin worries that the use of autonomous bombs may lower the threshold for violence. Sending a robot to do his dirty work would not endanger the police officer, but attempting to detain a suspect would. If human lives were not in danger, would we be more likely to blow suspected criminals to smithereens?
The same question has been posed in the arena of war, where armed drones and other military robots have forced the question of whether we are more likely to choose violence over negotiation when no human lives are in danger.
The once-stark line that existed between a soldier and a police officer is growing blurry as police become more militarized. President Obama has spoken out against this trend, banning certain military equipment “made for the battlefield that is not appropriate for local police departments.”
Lin worries about the deeper ethical issues – “compassion, judgment, human dignity, relationship with communities,” – that would arise if we replaced police officers with robots. He calls for a broader conversation on the implications of robot bombs and other technologies, and how they may affect the very “character of law enforcement in society.”
Editor’s note: I’m a huge science fiction fan, but the notion of robots will the ability to kill humans is a terrifying notion. It has been proven that anything can be hacked. Having irresponsible hackers controlling these robots or worse state sponsored hackers is frightening.
The other issue is the ease of killing people by just pushing a button. Our constitution was written with the idea that we should not trust our politicians. I certainly don’t trust politicians with this kind of power, the temptation is too great.
The ethics of robots killing humans has long been an issue in the literature. It should not happen. It may be too late, but I believe the military should back away from this as well. My two cents.