Clearpath Robotics, the Kitchener-based robot developer and manufacturer has lobbed an ethical consideration at its industry, not only signing up to support the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, but also releasing an open letter on the subject, penned by its chief technical officer and co-founder, Ryan Gariepy.
The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots launched in April 2013, with a name that might, in a healthy and well-adjusted world, appear to be an April Fool’s Joke warning against Robocop-style uprisings or the perils of trusting space aliens that resemble Klaatu in “The Day The Earth Stood Still”.
Unfortunately, the Campaign is no joke. “Killer robots” are defined as fully autonomous weapons that select and engage targets without any human input.
Clearpath’s statement goes further than simply disapproving of the development of such robots. It calls for an international ban on them.
In an industry for which military contracts are important, not to say necessary, Clearpath’s stance almost appears to be a case of biting the hand that feeds it. Except that it’s very cannily delivered, and is more likely to differentiate the company as “good guys” in the eyes of governments or companies interested in cultivating the optics that result from purchasing hardware from a certified “No Killer Robots” manufacturer.
Clearpath’s client list already includes the Canadian Department of Defense and the Navy, as well as the Canadian Space Agency, Google and MIT.
The full text of Gariepy’s open letter appears below.
An open letter to the public –
The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots (http://www.stopkillerrobots.org/) was launched in April 2013, bringing the topic of “killer robots” under public scrutiny – and for good reason.
To the people against killer robots: we support you.
This technology has the potential to kill indiscriminately and to proliferate rapidly; early prototypes already exist. Despite our continued involvement with Canadian and international military research and development, Clearpath Robotics believes that the development of killer robots is unwise, unethical, and should be banned on an international scale.
How do we define “killer robot”? Is it any machine developed for military purposes? Any machine which takes actions without human direction? No. We’re referring specifically to “lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS)”; systems where a human does not make the final decision for a machine to take a potentially lethal action.
Clearpath Robotics is an organization that engineers autonomous vehicles, systems, and solutions for a global market. As current leaders in the research and development space for unmanned vehicles, making this kind of statement is a risk. However, given the potentially horrific consequences of allowing development of lethal autonomous robots to continue, we are compelled to insist upon the strictest regulation of this technology.
The Double-Edged Sword
There are, of course, pros and cons to the ethics of autonomous lethal weapons and our team has debated many of them at length. In the end, however, we, as a whole, feel the negative implications of these systems far outweigh any benefits.
Is a computer paired with the correct technology less likely to make rash, stress-driven decisions while under fire? Possibly. Conversely, would a robot have the morality, sense, or emotional understanding to intervene against orders that are wrong or inhumane? No. Would computers be able to make the kinds of subjective decisions required for checking the legitimacy of targets and ensuring the proportionate use of force in the foreseeable future? No. Could this technology lead those who possess it to value human life less? Quite frankly, we believe this will be the case.
This is an incredibly complex issue. We need to have this discussion now and take a stance; the robotics revolution has arrived and is not going to wait for these debates to occur.
Clearpath Robotics strives to improve the lives of billions by automating the world’s dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs. This belief does not preclude the use of autonomous robots in the military; we will continue to support our military clients and provide them with autonomous systems – especially in areas with direct civilian applications such as logistics, reconnaissance, and search and rescue.
In our eyes, no nation in the world is ready for killer robots – technologically, legally, or ethically. More importantly, we see no compelling justification that this technology needs to exist in human hands. After all, the development of killer robots isn’t a necessary step on the road to self-driving cars, robot caregivers, safer manufacturing plants, or any of the other multitudes of ways autonomous robots can make our lives better. Robotics is at a tipping point, and it’s up to all of us to decide what path this technology takes.
As a company which continues to develop robots for various militaries worldwide, Clearpath Robotics has more to lose than others might by advocating entire avenues of research be closed off. Nevertheless, we call on anyone who has the potential to influence public policy to stop the development of killer robots before it’s too late.
We encourage those who might see business opportunities in this technology to seek other ways to apply their skills and resources for the betterment of humankind. Finally, we ask everyone to consider the many ways in which this technology would change the face of war for the worse. Voice your opinion and take a stance. #killerrobots
Co-Founder & CTO, Clearpath Robotics