Poll: Americans Opposed to Autonomous ‘Killer Robots’

By Stew Magnuson

A recent survey showed that most Americans oppose the use of robotic weaponry without humans in the decision loop.

Fifty-five percent of the respondents in a survey conducted by the University of Massachusetts Amherst said they were either “strongly opposed” or “somewhat opposed” to nations employing fully autonomous weapons, said a report released June 19.

“While much of the recent public debate has focused on remote-controlled military drones, there has been less research on what people think about fully-autonomous weapons,” said the organizer of the survey, Charli Carpenter, associate professor of political science at UMass Amherst. The survey made it clear that this was not about the current debate over remotely piloted aircraft targeting insurgents in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen.

The survey, which sampled 1,000 U.S. residents in various racial, age, and political groups, used two different terms to pose its questions: “fully autonomous weapons” and the more emotional “killer robots.” Changing rhetoric had little effect on the feelings expressed by the participants, she said. The responses remained unchanged; opposition to the machines was consistent and widespread, she added.

“People are scared by the idea of removing humans from the loop, not simply scared of the label,” said Carpenter.

While armed robots have found their way to the battlefield, versions that could automatically recognize a target and fire a weapon without a human operator giving a command, have not. However, several nations have expressed an interest in developing them, Carpenter said.  

Of the groups surveyed, the highest level of disapproval for the weapons came from the military community, the poll found. Its members came out at 73 percent against the weapons.

“It is interesting to note that military personnel, veterans and those with family in the military are more strongly opposed to autonomous weapons than the general public, with the highest opposition among active duty troops,” Carpenter wrote in a blog that accompanied the report’s release.

Carpenter decided to look into the question because of the emergence of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, an international coalition of non-governmental organizations that in April launched a movement to ban fully autonomous weapons.

“This question matters in terms of the international law on new weapons, because an important treaty clause [under discussion at the United Nations] states that ‘the public conscience’ should serve to guide policy decisions in the absence of clear rules,” she said. “These findings would suggest that people across the board do tend to feel very concerned about the development of these forms of weapons.”

Those who said they were not strongly opposed to the weaponry paired their responses with a desire to “protect the troops,” she said.

A second question asked respondents if they would support a global treaty banning the use of fully autonomous weapons. Thirty-three percent said they would “strongly support” such a ban and 20 percent said they would “somewhat support” it.

The survey results can be foundhere.

Topics: International, Robotics, Armed Robots

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