Before the war in Ukraine, discussions about autonomous weapon systems primarily focused on the moral aspect of using machines instead of humans in combat. This included concerns about asymmetry between wealthy and poor nations, the potential for robots to lower the threshold for starting wars, and accountability for war crimes committed by machines. A noteworthy study on this topic is „Autonomous Military Robotics: Risk, Ethics and Design,“ published in 2008 and sponsored by the Office of Naval Research.
However, with the war in Ukraine and the extensive integration of drone technology into the battlefield, the focus of the discussion has shifted from morality to utility. The current debate centers on the convenience of using drones for a wide range of tasks, from reconnaissance to attacking enemy positions. While the discussion about morality is necessary and the discussion about utility only natural, there is a third aspect that has been overlooked: the economic machine behind autonomous weapon systems.
When considering the use of robotics in civilian applications, it is clear that these solutions are intended to automate tasks and free humans from having to do them. For example, robot vacuum cleaners clean homes so that people do not have to. Industrial robots assemble cars, freeing human workers from dangerous and repetitive work.
So why do people and corporations spend money on these technologies, and how much are they willing to pay? In the case of a vacuum cleaner, the purchase is driven by convenience. The price point must be within a range that consumers are willing to spend to reduce their cleaning workload. In the case of industrial robots, the decision to purchase is based on the initial and operational cost of the robot compared to the operational cost of employing a human worker. Robots are more expensive to procure and set up, but once operational, they produce goods at a lower per-item cost than human workers. The decision to purchase is based on the break-even point at which the cost of the robot is less than the cost of employing a human worker.
The price of a product generally reflects the value provided. So, what value does an autonomous weapon system provide? I propose that the value provided by an autonomous weapon system lies in the fact that it spares human lives by sending robots instead of soldiers to fight. The cost of the robot can be compared to the amount of money one would be willing to pay for a human life, or the amount a nation-state is willing to pay to save one soldier’s life. And while this is good news for defense contractors the flip side of this is that it creates an economic pressure towards conflict.
In conclusion, robots and war are not an oddity. They are a natural fit. If the value of autonomous weapons systems lies in the prevention of human casualties, people and nation-states who can afford it will be willing to pay nearly any price to make it happen. At this moment the bulk of the fighting is still done by human soldiers. This is not a negation of the analysis in this article, but rather a result of the limitations of current technology. Human soldiers have already been replaced by technology wherever possible. This pattern is likely to continue.
Robots will go to war so that humans don’t have to.
Alexander Entinger is a highly experienced embedded engineer with a focus on robotic systems. By providing hard-won expertise designing embedded systems for real-world embedded applications Alexander Entinger is helping companies developing robotic systems or components for robotic systems to achieve their desired business outcomes. Prior to that, he was a non-commissioned officer in the Austrian’s Army infantry. In his spare time he reflects on the future of warfare.