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Health professionals’ role in the banning of lethal autonomous weapons

This is a great episode from the Future of Life Institute, on the topic of banning lethal autonomous weapons. You may wonder, what on earth do lethal autonomous weapons have to do with health professionals? I wondered the same thing until I was reminded of the role that physios play in the rehabilitation of landmine victims. Landmines are less sophisticated than the next generation of lethal autonomous weapons, which means, in part, that they’re less able to distinguish between targets.

Weaponised drones, for example, will not only identify and engage targets based on age, gender, location, dress code, etc. but will also be able to reprioritise objectives independent of any human operator. In addition, unlike building a landmine, which (probably) requires some specialised training, weaponised drones will be produced en masse at low cost, fitted with commoditised hardware, will be programmable, and can be deployed at distance from the target. These are tools of mass destruction for the consumer market, enabling a few to create immense harm to many.

The video below gives an example of how 100s of drones can be coordinated by a single person. If these drones were fitted with explosives instead of flashing lights, you start to get a sense of how much damage they could do in a crowded space and how difficult it would be to stop them.

Given our commitment to do no harm, the global health community has a long history of successful advocacy against inhumane weapons, and the World and American Medical Associations have called for bans on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Now, recent advances in artificial intelligence have brought us to the brink of a new arms race in lethal autonomous weapons.

The American Medical Association has published a position statement on the role of artificial intelligence in augmenting the work of medical professionals but no professional organisation has yet to take a stance on banning autonomous weapons. It seems odd that we recognise the significance of AI for enhancing healthcare but not apparently, it’s potential for increasing human suffering. The medical and health professional community should not only advocate for the use of AI to improve health but also to ensure it is not used for autonomous decision-making in armed conflict.

More reading and resources at https://futureoflife.org/2019/04/02/fli-podcast-why-ban-lethal-autonomous-weapons/.

By Michael Rowe

I'm a lecturer in the Department of Physiotherapy at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. I'm interested in technology, education and healthcare and look for places where these things meet.