Autonomous, Lethal Robot Concepts Must Be 'On the Table,' DoD Official Says

By Stew Magnuson

Current Defense Department policy calls for a human to always be the final decision maker when deciding to use a robotic system to deliver lethal force, but there are ongoing conversations in the department that could lead to machines autonomously deciding to deploy weapons, a DoD official said March 3.

The Pentagon is working on the so-called third offset strategy, in which it envisions virtually every part of the armed forces working with a variety of automated systems and robots on battlefields to give warfighters a technological edge. Melissa L. Flagg, deputy assistant secretary of defense at the office of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics' research directorate, said there is no "book" being written on the offset strategy, and there are many still unanswered questions on how humans will work together with machines.

One of those questions centers around robotic systems and whether they can deploy weapons without a human in the decision loop, she said at the National Defense Industrial Association's Ground Robotics Capabilities conference in Springfield, Virginia.

"We have to think what autonomous kinetic options really look like," she said. A scenario would be where machines are operating deep in enemy territory in a  "highly competitive, highly contested space," she said.

If a robotic system is in a battle zone, knows the mission, has been thoroughly tested, has the kinetic option, and its communications links have been cut off, can that machine make the decision to deploy a weapon independently, she asked. 

"These are hard questions and a lot of people outside of us tech guys are thinking about it, talking about it, engaging in what we can and can't do. That's important. We need to understand and know that it doesn't necessarily need to happen, but we also have to put the options on the table because we are the worst-case scenario guys," she said.

Marine Corps Col. Henry Lutz, robotics and autonomous systems team officer in charge on the joint staff, J-8, said his office is putting together a joint concept document that will be used to guide the services' investments in robotics and autonomy.

The report, due in May, is based on the concept that the joint force will employ integrated teams of robots and autonomous systems in a wide variety of combinations to expand commanders' options by 2035, he said. That includes "semi-autonomous" weapons that are able to operate in electronic warfare environments, but not fully autonomous at least at this point.

He noted that tele-operated stationary machine gun emplacements were tried in Afghanistan. In the future, such systems will probably be "remotely operated, probably not autonomous because the current policy prohibits that."

Warfighters were hesitant to use remotely controlled weapons stations in the counter-insurgency environment because of safety risks. "Understanding that in a counter-insurgency environment you can do more harm than good, there was not a level of trust," he said.

"It is probably some time before that happens both from a safety, technical standpoint as well as a policy standpoint," he added.

Policies change and technologies advance, he acknowledged. Autonomous, killing robots are discussed at the joint staff, as are all future concepts, but the joint staff doesn't make policy, he noted.

"Just because we are capable of doing something, it doesn't meant that's what we do," he said.

Photo Credit: Army

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Ground Vehicles, Science and Engineering Technology

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