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Battlefield Robots

Monday May 25 2020

Continuing the series marking the 50th anniversary of the Church of Scotland SRT (Society, Religion and Technology), the Rev Dr David Coulter reflects on the increasing use of artificial intelligence on the battlefield.

When VE Day dawned, on May 8 2020, it marked 75 years since the guns fell silent at the end of the war in Europe.

Years of carnage and destruction had come to an end and millions of people took to the streets to celebrate peace, mourn their loved ones and to hope for the future. Of course, World War Two continued until August 15 1945 when Japan surrendered. This conflict was fought on an industrial scale which ended in the shadow of nuclear weapons.

For generations, human beings were seen as the first weapon of war. With club and spear, bow and arrow, warriors went to war. They went to defend their homeland and to put themselves in harm’s way to bring about security and peace. As with WW2, this means being willing and able to apply or not apply, lethal force. Today this is governed by the strict moral and ethical code of the Geneva Conventions and the Laws of Armed Conflict, the limits of which have been tested over the years. For many, the biggest post war military issue was the Cold War nuclear arms race upon which the Church’s SRT has kept a weather eye for 30 years.

For most in the military the questions are more personal and immediate. Lt Patrick Bury of The Royal Irish Regiment, reflecting on his tour of duty in Afghanistan states: “Most soldiers do not want to kill per se. Almost all of us have an inherent belief that killing is wrong.  However, the situations we find ourselves in often mean we are forced to consider the use of lethal force. Our training helps us differentiate between threat and appropriate use of force... Killing, whatever its form, can be morally corrosive.”

Thankfully, everywhere our armed forces go, our chaplains go with them to deliver pastoral care, spiritual support and moral guidance, to the young servicemen or women who have to make the right decision on the bad day, often when no one else is looking. It is understandable, then, that across the globe militaries are looking at autonomous technologies to relieve this pressure.

Inevitably, difficult moral and ethical questions are being asked about the implications of this. The challenge is how best to use this new technology without losing our humanity. In many walks of life autonomous robotic technology perform tasks that require levels of precision and application that are beyond human capacity. However, when this kind of technology is weaponised, when the utterly fearless, emotionless robot can be programmed to fight and to engage targets with a greater or lesser degree of human control, significant moral, ethical and spiritual questions are raised.

SRT is well placed to examine the use of artificial intelligence and to consider the cause and effects of deploying robotic technology in battle. The SRT can help explore the corporate and personal moral responsibility that is carried by human designers, programmers and operators of such machines. Today’s military is already fully engaged in the development and use of autonomous technologies that can provide the strategic and tactical edge. Because of that, our servicemen and women continue to carry immense moral responsibility, challenge and risk in the use of lethal force and its consequences, but this comes at great human cost. Our chaplains, ministering in this context, also carry immense responsibility. It is a good thing, therefore, that the SRT, on behalf of the Church of Scotland, continues to provide a much-needed voice.

The Rev Dr David Coulter is minister of Guernsey: St Andrew’s in the Grange and served as Chaplain General to HM Land Forces 2014-18.