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If a robot commits a war crime, who is responsible?

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Interview. We spoke with a leading artificial intelligence expert about his campaign against killer robots. ‘What I would not want is for the threshold for going to war to be drastically lowered.’

written by Rachele Gonnelli

Also filed under interview

April 11, 2019

Marco Dorigo is an expert in robotics and one of the first scholars of “swarm intelligence,” in which individuals behave coherently in a group without centralized instruction. (Dorigo first described ant colony optimization.) This field of study has vast implications for artificial intelligence, which was the subject of our conversation with Dorigo.

Dr. Marco Dorigo, you, as an international robotics expert, have already signed two petitions by scientists to outlaw “killer robots,” weapons systems with artificial intelligence not under human control, technically known as “human-out-of-the-loop” systems. What makes you so concerned about this?

My concern is more about the future than the present, if we will truly be able to have machines that can autonomously make a decision to kill. I see this possibility as an important problem, because it could lower the tolerance threshold at which one decides to enter into an armed conflict, since it would no longer risk the lives of soldiers.

Another worrying aspect is the issue of the responsibility for the decision: if a mistake is made, who will answer for it? As we all know, human beings also make mistakes, but it is possible to trace the responsibility for them: war crimes can be prosecuted, and, as a necessary precondition, they are attributable to particular people. Even if all the soldier does is press a button at a remote console, as is already happening, there is always a human decision made in the moment. However, if we delegate this fully to a machine, it becomes much harder to attribute responsibility for the actions. If a weapon automatically decides if, when and whom to shoot using images collected by sensors, who is responsible? The algorithm that........

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