Climate Change and Killer Robots

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This week's New Scientist magazine includes a letter of mine on the subject of Killer Robots. It was triggered by an article in a recent New Scientist magazine issue in which international bodies agreed that we shouldn't make fully autonomous, lethally armed robots. Instead, any robot that could kill should be controlled in some way by a human. Here's my letter:
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"In your article on the moral dangers of autonomous, lethally armed robots, Peter Asaro says "most people now feel that it is unacceptable for robots to kill people without human intervention." (18th April, p7). The moral reasoning behind this view is intriguing. How is sending a programmed, armed robot into an area designated as 'enemy occupied' any worse than, say, bombing the area from ten thousand feet? In fact, the level of precision and the amount of human judgement involved in target selection with the robot would be arguably greater."


"There is an even stranger moral angle. Someone who is ordered to go and kill strangers in a war can suffer severe emotional trauma and other mental distress as a result. In the future, there may be societies that decide, on moral grounds, to delegate all killing of the enemy in their wars to fully autonomous robots so as to protect their citizens from such emotional trauma. In that unnerving scenario, the robots wouldn't be seen by those citizens as devils, but heroic guardians."


The second paragraph connects with another topic; how climate change will change our world, both environmentally and politically, in the next century. At the moment, we're in the foothills of the Climate Change Mountain Range. In other words, we're seeing climate-induced changes to the world around us, but these changes are the early stages of something much greater in scale. One tragic phenomenon that is already growing in scale is human refugees. As Earth's human population grows, mostly unchecked in second-and-third-world countries, and climate change turns arable land into desert, a problem that is now occurring in California, Australia, parts of Africa, Italy, the Near East, among others, there will be more and more refugees trying desperately to move north to countries that still produce food.

This phenomenon will occur all over the world in the coming decades, but I'll focus on Europe for this article. According to this Independent newspaper article, security fences are already going up around Europe to stop human migration from the Arab World and North Africa. As climate change rolls forward, I think more will be built and they will probably be patrolled by armed robots.

By 2070, Southern Europe will be suffering extreme food growing problems. As our planet warms, the area of dryness that currently covers the Sahara will expand northwards and cover Southern Europe. This climate change research article shows how agriculture in Spain, Greece, Southern Portugal, Southern Italy and Western Turkey will become extremely difficult to carry out in fifty years time. The orange groves of Southern California are turning to desert now and the same will happen soon to the orange groves of Spain. As the climate change article points out, 'a 2004-05 drought in the Iberian Peninsula caused a 40 percent drop in cereals production'. Olive production in Italy is failing and several regions in Southern Europe are already having to import water in tankers to keep functioning.

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It's hard to imagine how different Europe will be in seventy years time. Spain, Greece, Portugal and Southern Italy will not be able to support half the population that is currently living there. The refugees from North Africa and the Near East will be landing on the shores of countries that are already unable to support their own populations, never mind the needs of those desperate visitors. The countries of Northern Europe will look increasingly at their southern neighbours with fear. Spain, Greece, Portugal and Peninsular Italy are already having problems staying fiscally with Northern Europe; this will be impossible in fifty years time. The European Union will break up and the Southern European countries will be abandoned by the North to the ravages of climate change.

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This is where killer robots may rear their metal heads. History and psychology tell us that human morality, on a national scale, is a flexible beast when food supplies are short. There's a good chance that by 2100, Northern European nations will have given up on any pretence of trying to save people from the South. Instead, the media in the North will depict the desperate Southerners as parasites, plague carriers, sub-humans and other distorted and demonising images. A fence will be erected across the Pyrenees, the Italian Peninsular and along the Alps. Anyone even approaching this fence will risk being killed by autonomous armed robots. This setup will be accepted by the fearful populations of Northern Europe as unavoidable, as the only way to protect themselves in a hotter world. In this scenario, these armed robots will be viewed as guardians, as a necessary evil.

This scenario is bleak and dark, but I think it must be discussed. Perhaps if people read about predictions such as this one, it might galvanise them into reducing their fossil fuel consumption and help lessen the chance of such a terrible scenario coming about. Here's hoping.