Challenging robot warfare

IssueOctober 2010
News by Gabriel Carlyle

“The lawyers tell me there are no prohibitions against robots making life-or-death decisions” - Gordon Johnson, leader of robotics efforts at the Pentagon’s Joint Forces Command Research Center in Virginina

In “the most intense period of US [drone] strikes in Pakistan since they began in 2004” (Washington Post), the judge trying 14 peace activists charged with breaking into Creech air force base in Nevada announced that he will take four months to consider his verdict.

Situated just outside Las Vegas, Creech is the base from which many of the unmanned drones used by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan are flown. It also houses the RAF’s 90-strong drone team (Squadron 39). At least 97 missiles are known to have been fired by British drones in Afghanistan since June 2008.

At least 60 people are estimated to have been killed in 13 drone strikes in the Pakistani region of North Waziristan in the first half of September. “We live in constant fear,” one villager told AP. “We have missile strikes every day.”

“Go in peace”

The “Creech 14”, including Nobel peace prize nominee Kathy Kelly, were arrested on 9 April 2009 after entering the open main gates of USAF Creech (see PN 2509). Though their trial judge, William Jansen, tried to keep the trial of the “Creech 14” focussed on whether the 14 had broken the law of trespass, however he permitted testimony from former US attorney general Ramsey Clark, and the legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Bill Quigley. Declaring: “This case has a lot more consequences than a trespass case… I want to make sure my decision is the correct decision”, he set a date of 27 January 2011 for his written decision, telling the defendants to “go in peace”.

Targeted killings

Along with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCR) has also filed a lawsuit challenging the US government’s authority to carry out “targeted killings” of US citizens far away from any battlefield – killings which are often carried out using drones. Both organisations are acting on behalf of Nasser al-Awlaki, whose son Anwar al-Awlaki (a US citizen) has been placed on a list of people that the CIA is authorised to kill.

“The United States cannot simply execute people, including its own citizens, anywhere in the world based on its own say-so,” Vince Warren, Executive Director of the CCR explained. Meanwhile, European activists have also begun to set their sights on the threats – current and future – posed by drone warfare, with conferences in London (organised by Fellowship of Reconciliation) and Berlin (organised by the International Committee for Robot Arms Control) this September.

Noel Sharkey, professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at Sheffield university – who addressed both events, explained that “Our biggest concern for the future is autonomous systems that [select] targets themselves.”

Topics: Robotic warfare