U.S. Marines on a training patrol with a combat robot in California (July 2016)
Rhita Daniel / 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit
Can, should, should autonomous weapons wage war?
You can answer this question with everyday knowledge and a little cynicism.
Anyone who has ever operated a computer, who has dealt with crashes and hidden updates, can only find the idea that machines make the difference between life and death grotesque.
In military technology, however, a revolution is taking place, the third fundamental one after the invention of black powder and nuclear weapons.
"The enormous technological advances that have been made in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) in recent years have pushed this notion of autonomous weapons to the threshold of concrete implementation," says an expert report by the office for Technology assessment at the German Bundestag.
In many countries around the world, people are talking about what digitalization means for the military sector - as is currently the case in the USA.
There, an important advisory body to the US Department of Defense has just made recommendations to President Joe Biden and Congress.
With best regards from Silicon Valley
And the group is familiar with computers, their inadequacies and their promises.
Among the 15 members of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence is the upcoming Amazon boss Andy Jassy, who was previously responsible for the Group's cloud business.
Google and Microsoft have sent their artificial intelligence managers, Andrew Moore and Eric Horvitz, and Oracle has sent board member Safra Catz.
The body was headed by former Google boss Eric Schmid, who also chaired two other Pentagon commissions.
The current final report of the commission deals with the question of what role America should play in the future in the development and use of autonomous weapons systems.
And if Schmid and the other members of the committee have their way, there can only be one answer: The USA must be right at the front, otherwise China will take over this place.
Only nuclear weapons should not be controlled by machines - but otherwise the broad promotion of relevant technologies is extremely important.
"The United States must act now to deploy AI systems and invest significantly more resources in AI innovations to protect its security, promote its prosperity and secure the future of democracy," the report said.
A global ban on such weapon systems, on the other hand, would not be in the interest of the country - because the most important strategic opponents would not adhere to it anyway: "Promises by states like Russia or China would probably be meaningless," the commission concluded.
America should invest as much as possible in order to keep a lead over countries like Russia, but above all China, and this dominance should then ensure stability.
Arming for peace, so to speak.
Experts take a critical view of this.
"We are on the way to an arms race between the USA and China and Russia," says Anja Dahlmann from the Science and Politics Foundation (SWP) in Berlin.
The Americans assume that they can maintain and expand the technological leadership.
But that is doubtful.
"One can have enormous doubts as to whether this direction makes sense," confirms Frank Sauer from the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Munich.
Negotiations have been going on for years
The fact that the commission advocates the idea can certainly have selfish motives.
Many of the members have an interest in the US military investing as much money as possible in digitization.
For example, Amazon and Oracle are currently arguing in court about who can build a billion-dollar cloud system for the Pentagon.
And commission chief Schmid is apparently an investor in several military technology companies.
"He has many, many financial incentives to ensure that the Department of Defense and other federal agencies use AI aggressively," says John Davisson of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.
But would an international ban on autonomous weapons even be realistic?
At the United Nations in Geneva, discussions have been going on for years within the framework of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.
They are not making any real headway.
That has to do with political will, but also with the complexity of the matter.
It is comparatively easy to count warheads and tanks, and calculate the range of missiles - with algorithms things are a little more complicated.
Armed robot at a fair in the Ukrainian capital Kiev (October 2016)
Photo: Sergey Dolzhenko / dpa
The human rights organization Human Rights Watch compiled the positions of the states in a report last year.
According to this, only around 30 countries, mainly from South America, Africa and Asia, have clearly spoken out in favor of an international ban.
In many other countries, including Germany, the position is a little more complicated.
It is true that the coalition agreement of the current federal government says: »We reject autonomous weapon systems that are beyond human control.
We want to ostracize them worldwide. ”But Human Rights Watch complains that although Germany took part in every CCW meeting on killer robots between 2014 and 2019, the officials“ did not support proposals to start contract negotiations ”.
Instead, Germany and France proposed a political declaration, which would not, however, be legally binding.
"The German role is ambivalent," says SWP researcher Dahlmann.
That already begins with the fact that the term »outlaw« from the coalition agreement leaves a lot of room for interpretation and nobody knows exactly »what it is supposed to mean here«.
So is it a legally binding ban?
Is it a political statement of intent that people don't like the technology?
There are various positions on this in the government.
In the Federal Foreign Office one can easily imagine an international ban on autonomous weapons, Minister Heiko Maas regularly declares this publicly.
But the diplomats in the negotiations are not given any instructions to demand this on the international stage.
And in the Ministry of Defense, in case of doubt, some would prefer to leave it with a declaration of intent anyway.
This probably has to do with the new air combat system FCAS, which Germany, France and Spain want to develop together.
The “Future Combat Air System” is to replace the “Eurofighter” and the French “Rafale” from 2040.
In addition to a classic fighter aircraft, it also includes so-called remote carriers that can be deployed by the jet and then operate in a network.
These unmanned missiles are supposed to combine the capabilities of guided missiles and drones and should have at least some autonomous functions, the details are currently being determined.
This is what the “Future Combat Air System” fighter aircraft could look like
Photo: CHARLES PLATIAU / REUTERS
In the USA, meanwhile, critical voices about the use of artificial intelligence in the military are increasing - and not only from peace activists.
Take Mary Cummings, for example, who was once one of the Navy's first female fighter pilots on her F / A-18.
Today she studies autonomous weapons at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
"I can imagine that the Biden government will also provide a new impetus for talks on autonomous weapons systems."
Frank Sauer, University of the Federal Armed Forces, Munich
Most of AI development happens in the commercial arena, she says.
"The military is far, far, far behind." Cummings describes himself as a "techno-realist."
Artificial intelligence in the military is important, it will also be important for future developments - but the "hysteria" that it is excessively efficient, "that is not true."
So the risks of an arms race through AI weapons are real, the supposed military advantages are not necessarily.
Perhaps President Biden will come to this conclusion too.
At the beginning of his term in office, he made it clear that arms control is important to him.
Then he agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin on an extension of the nuclear disarmament treaty "New Start".
Researcher Sauer therefore says: "I can imagine that the Biden government will also give a new impetus for talks on autonomous weapon systems."
Icon: The mirror