Who Will Be Accountable for Military Technology?

What's to come?
Nov. 15 2012 7:27 AM

Who Will Be Accountable for Military Technology?

As drones, robots, and even enhanced soldiers take the battlefield, questions of responsibility get more complicated.

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The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is already investigating using a portable TMS machine to counter fatigue. Professor Jonathan Moreno of the University of Pennsylvania told the Independent newspaper last year, “There is talk of TMS machines being used on battlefields within 10 years and in 10 years more in helmets.” This is all part of a significant effort which DARPA is putting into bio-enhancements in order to create a “supersoldier.”

Bio-enhancement per se is nothing new. Physical exercise, after all, is a method of enhancing the body. What is changing is the scale of the potential transformation. DARPA is funding scores of projects designed to improve humans, to give them, among other things, more energy, a greater ability to withstand cold, and a capacity to function well with less sleep. Scientists have already succeeded in artificially boosting muscle growth in monkeys by modifying their genes. Others are looking at cognitive enhancements which could allow soldiers to think faster and to control machines with their brains. Robocop is still some way off, but a stronger, smarter soldier is quite conceivable.

This phenomenon could, in the long term, create some serious difficulties for civil-military relations. We already have trouble holding our military forces to account due to the widespread tendency to see servicemen and servicewomen as somehow superior to ordinary people—why should soldiers be entitled to board airplanes early, for instance?


There is a prevalent attitude that makes it very difficult to criticize anything the military does. Imagine what it would be like if bio-enhancement meant that it was actually true that the troops were “better” people than civilians. The deference many feel toward the military would be stronger than ever: We might believe that we had no right telling people who are better than we are what to do or how to do it. The social divide between the military and the rest of society would deepen further. There is already a worrying tendency among some soldiers to look on their political masters with contempt. With bio-enhancement, an even greater arrogance might arise. This distinct caste of special people would be less inclined to listen to the civilian authorities.

These new technologies are not all bad, of course. Robots, for instance, offer some definite advantages. Unlike soldiers, super or not, they are not subject to emotions and as a result they may make better judgments. The Aegis system on the Vincennes recorded the Iranian plane as climbing and not as descending to attack. Left to its own devices, it might not have fired. That leaves us with a dilemma: Should we choose the human, who is prone to mistakes but can at least be held responsible for what he does, or should we go with the robot, which produces better outcomes but cannot be held to account?

There is no easy answer to this question, but we must address it before we deploy new superweapons or develop biologically enhanced warriors. Banning killer robots and other technologies may not be the solution, but as citizens of democratic states, it is both our right and our responsibility to consider whether the military advantages these technologies bring are worth the cost they may impose on our democratic order.

This article was inspired by the 2012 Chautauqua Council on Emerging Technologies and 21st Century Conflict, sponsored by Arizona State University’s Consortium for Emerging Technologies, Military Operations, and National Security and Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics and held at the Chautauqua Institution in New York. Future Tense is a partnership of Arizona State, the New America Foundation, and Slate magazine.



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