Bioethics Blogs

Killer Robots, the Free Market, and the Need for Law

[Continuing coverage of the UN’s 2015 conference on killer robots. See all posts in this series here.]

In a well-attended lunchtime side event yesterday (don’t go to UN meetings for the free food; plastic-wrapped sandwiches and water or pop were the offerings, and these quickly disappeared at the hands of the horde of hungry delegates), Canadian robotics entrepreneur Ryan Gariepy spoke about why his company, Clearpath Robotics, declared last year that it does not and will not produce killer robots. With about eighty employees, Clearpath is a young, aggressive developer of autonomous ground and maritime vehicle systems, putting about equal emphasis on hardware and software. The company’s name reflects its original goal of developing mine-clearing robots, and Clearpath is by no means allergic to military robotics in general; its client list includes “various militaries worldwide” and major military contractors. Nevertheless, in a statement released in August 2014, Gariepy, as co-founder and Chief Technology Officer, wrote, “To the people against killer robots: we support you…. Clearpath Robotics believes that the development of killer robots is unwise, unethical, and should be banned on an international scale.”

Ryan Gariepy’s presentation

At lunch yesterday, Gariepy explained some of his reasons. He sees a general tradeoff in robotic systems between “flexibility” or “capability” and “predictability” or “controllability,” and worries that military imperatives will drive autonomous weapons toward the former goals. He talked about recent findings that the same “deep learning” neural networks that Professor Stuart Russell had earlier described as displaying “superhuman” performance in visual object classification tasks are also prone to bizarre errors: uniform patterns misclassified as images of familiar objects, and images that the machines recognize correctly but fail to recognize after the addition of what to a human is an imperceptible amount of engineered (non-random) noise.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.