Inside the brains of psychopaths
Three scientists examine three dimensions of psychopathy: neurological, social, and criminal.
KEVIN DUTTON: Although psychopaths don't feel emotions like us. They are masters at pushing those emotional hot buttons that elicit emotions in others, in us. Sympathy being one of the major, major motivators.
JAMES FALLON: They're not going to kill you or rape you or maybe even take your money but they're going to manipulate the situation, make you look bad or use you in some way. Something bad is going to happen and if you sense that, people have a sense that something is wrong with somebody, you walk away. You don't fight these guys because they're an intraspecies predator. A human that is a predator on other humans.
KEVIN DUTTON: They're not really attuned to your feelings. They don't really care about your feelings. Really, ultimately, the world surrounds them. Psychopaths are also very charming. They're very manipulative, especially when they're in a crowd. Especially when they're in company. But behind the scenes when they're alone with you they can be very, very controlling, sometimes, but not always, aggressive. But psychologically controlling as well, okay.
JAMES FALLON: It's hard to look at the actual behavior of a psychopath and say 'that thing is psychopathic or not.' Because psychopaths will come to the rescue of people. "Can I help you up, ma'am?" They can see the outward behaviors and they just can mimic it to get along. But fundamentally they don't feel it.
KEVIN DUTTON: We all know about the psychopath's enhanced killer instinct, their finely tuned vulnerability antennae. But it may surprise you to know that there are some situations in which psychopaths are actually more adept at saving lives than they are at taking them. So, let me give you an example of what I mean by that. Imagine you've got a train and it's hurtling down a track. In its path, five people are trapped on the line and cannot escape. Fortunately you can flick a switch which diverts the train down a fork in that track, away from those five people but at a price. There is another person trapped down that fork and the train will kill them instead. Though the thought of flicking the switch isn't exactly a nice one, the utilitarian choice, as it were, killing just the one person instead of the five represents the least worst option.
But now let me give you a variation. You've got a train speeding out of control down a track and it's going to plow into five people on the line. But this time you are standing behind a very large stranger on a footbridge above that track. The only way to save the people is to heave the stranger over. While the score in lives is precisely the same as in the first scenario—five to one—one's choice of action appears far trickier. Now, why should that be? Well, the reason, it turns out, all boils down to temperature, okay. Case one represents what we might call an impersonal dilemma. It involves those areas of the brain primarily responsible for what we call cold empathy. For reasoning and rational thought. Case two on the other hand represents what we might call a personal dilemma. It involves the emotion center of the brain known as the amygdala, the circuitry of hot empathy, what we might call the feeling of feeling what another person is feeling. Now, psychopaths, just like most normal members of the population, have no trouble at all with case one. They flick the switch and the train diverts accordingly killing just the one person instead of the five. But, this is where the plot thickens. Quite unlike normal members of the population, psychopaths also experience little difficulty with case two. Psychopaths, without a moment's hesitation, are perfectly willing to chuck the fat guy over the rails if that's what the doctor orders. Now, moreover, this difference in behavior has a distinct neural signature.
MICHAEL STONE: There are a number of areas in the brain that are very important in social decision making and moral attitudes. And there's a more primitive part of the brain that deals with emotion called the limbic system. In the limbic system there is a small organ called the amygdala that registers emotion but particularly has an ability to recognize when somebody else out there has a fearful face or is in a state of fright or upset. The interesting thing about the kind of coldhearted murderers is that their amygdalas don't function properly the way ours does and they may recognize, dimly, that so and so out there is afraid, but they don't have the concern that you or I would, let's say, if we saw a crying kid in a department store who probably got separated from its mother. They would recognize it but they would take advantage of the child, pretend to take it to the information booth to get it reconnected with its mom and then kidnap the kid or something like that.
Another important area is the front part of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex. That area is involved in moral decision making, figuring out what's right versus what's wrong, that we learn as we grow up and are instructed by our parents and our teachers. So if that area of the brain is not operating at full tilt it may be possible then to carry out an act which would be repugnant and very much against the law. But think of the orbitofrontal cortex as A kind of a braking system which, if it's operating, will put the brakes on a thought or a desire that may have preceded it that 'I'd like to kill that son of a bitch' or 'I want to take that kid and kidnap him.' Then when thinking of the consequences, 'Oh my god, I'd be eating cheese sandwiches in jail for the rest of my life. I won't go there.' But if that cortex is not operating the person would just go ahead and do it.
KEVIN DUTTON: The pattern of brain activation in both normal people and psychopaths is identical on the presentation of the impersonal moral dilemma, but radically different when things start to get a bit more personal. Imagine that I went to hook you up to a brain scanner, a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, and were to present you with those two dilemmas. What would I observe as you went about trying to solve them? Well, at the precise moment that the nature of the dilemma switches from impersonal to personal I would see the emotion center of your brain, your amygdala and related brain circuits, the medial orbitofrontal cortex, for example, light up like a pinball machine. I would witness the moment, in other words, when emotion puts its money in the slot. But in psychopaths I would see precisely nothing and the passage from impersonal to personal would slip by unnoticed because that emotion neighborhood of their brains, that emotional zip code, has a neural curfew. And that's why they're perfectly happy to chuck that fat guy over the side.
JAMES FALLON: Orbital cortex and the amygdala. Orbital cortex is involved in inhibiting your behavior. Now the amygdala on the other hand really causes behavior and normally they're in balance, they inhibit each other. Now, in a psychopath they're both turned off so they don't inhibit each other and they don't regulate it so the normal balance of animal drives and your social interactions, your morality, are not right. That's never right. There's a time for aggression. There's a time for killing, even. There's a time for sex. And part of it is how the rest of the brain is able to tell your orbital cortex the social context is correct now. Psychopaths don't have that. They're doing things completely out of context, out of social context, and that's the problem.
KEVIN DUTTON: If we remove the definition of psychopath away from the kind of more clinical setting to an everyday life scenario, psychopaths tend to have quite a few positive characteristics going for them. They tend to be assertive. They don't procrastinate. They focus on the positives of situations. They don't take things personally. They don't beat themselves up when things go wrong.
JAMES FALLON: Another thing is you're not very susceptible to pain. Pain doesn't bother you. And also, when you're caught doing something, you have no tells. You could be caught red handed having an affair with somebody and you could say 'No, that's not me.' It's like, are you going to believe me or your lying eyes? And so it's the ability to lie without any tells.
KEVIN DUTTON: Those kinds of characteristics can actually really help us get along in life so let's give you a very simple example if you like. The Nike slogan, Just Do It—there's a psychopathic slogan for you if ever there was one. Psychopaths do not procrastinate. Psychopaths, if they want something, they go for it and they go for it now. Top sportsmen are very high in certain psychopathic characteristics. Now, let me just go through them. You've got ruthlessness, you've got fearlessness, you've got mental toughness, you've got coolness under pressure, you've got the ability to focus remorselessly on a goal. I mean, these things are straight out of the sports psychology textbooks in many ways so anyone from top golfers to top cyclists to top boxers to top athletes, they are going to be high on these psychopathic characteristics.
JAMES FALLON: Usually the question is what percent do you think is due to genetics and what percent is due to environment? And it turns out not to be the great question to ask, because it looks like the answer is if you are born with the biological markers for psychopathy, for example, that is the genetics and the altered brain pattern early on, if you are a susceptible kid then environment means everything. It means a lot, maybe 80 percent.
KEVIN DUTTON: Where we start getting into the realms of criminal psychopaths is when we look at natural aggression levels and perhaps natural levels of intelligence. If you've got those characteristics right there that I've told you about and you happen to be naturally violent and you also happen to be naturally stupid—not a very politically correct word there—but you happen to be low in intelligence, then your prospects, to be perfectly honest with you, are not going to be that great, okay. You're going to wind up smacking a bottle over someone's head in a bar and you are going to wind up in prison pretty quickly, okay. However, if you've got those traits I've just mentioned to you and you are not naturally violent and you are also intelligent then it's a different story altogether. Then, as the famous Reuter's headline once mentioned, you are more likely going to make a killing in the market than anywhere else.
- How are the brains of psychopaths wired differently? In this video, psychologist Kevin Dutton, neuroscientist (and psychopath himself) James Fallon, and professor of psychiatry Michael Stone take the wiring apart.
- In neurotypical people, the amygdala and the orbitofrontal cortex inhibit one another to allow for reasonable, moral decision-making. Psychopaths don't have that mechanism.
- Up to 80% of who a psychopath will turn out to be is down to environment. Intelligence, natural aggressiveness, and your family and friends determine whether a psychopath will grow up to make a killing or just "make a killing in the market," as a famous headline once said.
- Harvard-Yale Study Unveils A New Understanding of Psychopaths ... ›
- Did humanity evolve to have psychopaths? - Big Think ›
- Psychopaths can empathize. They choose not to, says study - Big ... ›
- Is psychopathy untreatable? New research shows promising signs ... ›
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The experience of life flashing before one's eyes has been reported for well over a century, but where's the science behind it?
At the age of 16, when Tony Kofi was an apprentice builder living in Nottingham, he fell from the third story of a building. Time seemed to slow down massively, and he saw a complex series of images flash before his eyes.
As he described it, “In my mind's eye I saw many, many things: children that I hadn't even had yet, friends that I had never seen but are now my friends. The thing that really stuck in my mind was playing an instrument". Then Tony landed on his head and lost consciousness.
When he came to at the hospital, he felt like a different person and didn't want to return to his previous life. Over the following weeks, the images kept flashing back into his mind. He felt that he was “being shown something" and that the images represented his future.
Later, Tony saw a picture of a saxophone and recognized it as the instrument he'd seen himself playing. He used his compensation money from the accident to buy one. Now, Tony Kofi is one of the UK's most successful jazz musicians, having won the BBC Jazz awards twice, in 2005 and 2008.
Though Tony's belief that he saw into his future is uncommon, it's by no means uncommon for people to report witnessing multiple scenes from their past during split-second emergency situations. After all, this is where the phrase “my life flashed before my eyes" comes from.
But what explains this phenomenon? Psychologists have proposed a number of explanations, but I'd argue the key to understanding Tony's experience lies in a different interpretation of time itself.
When life flashes before our eyes
The experience of life flashing before one's eyes has been reported for well over a century. In 1892, a Swiss geologist named Albert Heim fell from a precipice while mountain climbing. In his account of the fall, he wrote is was “as if on a distant stage, my whole past life [was] playing itself out in numerous scenes".
More recently, in July 2005, a young woman called Gill Hicks was sitting near one of the bombs that exploded on the London Underground. In the minutes after the accident, she hovered on the brink of death where, as she describes it: “my life was flashing before my eyes, flickering through every scene, every happy and sad moment, everything I have ever done, said, experienced".
In some cases, people don't see a review of their whole lives, but a series of past experiences and events that have special significance to them.
Explaining life reviews
Perhaps surprisingly, given how common it is, the “life review experience" has been studied very little. A handful of theories have been put forward, but they're understandably tentative and rather vague.
For example, a group of Israeli researchers suggested in 2017 that our life events may exist as a continuum in our minds, and may come to the forefront in extreme conditions of psychological and physiological stress.
Another theory is that, when we're close to death, our memories suddenly “unload" themselves, like the contents of a skip being dumped. This could be related to “cortical disinhibition" – a breaking down of the normal regulatory processes of the brain – in highly stressful or dangerous situations, causing a “cascade" of mental impressions.
But the life review is usually reported as a serene and ordered experience, completely unlike the kind of chaotic cascade of experiences associated with cortical disinhibition. And none of these theories explain how it's possible for such a vast amount of information – in many cases, all the events of a person's life – to manifest themselves in a period of a few seconds, and often far less.
Thinking in 'spatial' time
An alternative explanation is to think of time in a “spatial" sense. Our commonsense view of time is as an arrow that moves from the past through the present towards the future, in which we only have direct access to the present. But modern physics has cast doubt on this simple linear view of time.
Indeed, since Einstein's theory of relativity, some physicists have adopted a “spatial" view of time. They argue we live in a static “block universe" in which time is spread out in a kind of panorama where the past, the present and the future co-exist simultaneously.
The modern physicist Carlo Rovelli – author of the best-selling The Order of Time – also holds the view that linear time doesn't exist as a universal fact. This idea reflects the view of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argued that time is not an objectively real phenomenon, but a construct of the human mind.
This could explain why some people are able to review the events of their whole lives in an instant. A good deal of previous research – including my own – has suggested that our normal perception of time is simply a product of our normal state of consciousness.
In many altered states of consciousness, time slows down so dramatically that seconds seem to stretch out into minutes. This is a common feature of emergency situations, as well as states of deep meditation, experiences on psychedelic drugs and when athletes are “in the zone".
The limits of understanding
But what about Tony Kofi's apparent visions of his future? Did he really glimpse scenes from his future life? Did he see himself playing the saxophone because somehow his future as a musician was already established?
There are obviously some mundane interpretations of Tony's experience. Perhaps, for instance, he became a saxophone player simply because he saw himself playing it in his vision. But I don't think it's impossible that Tony did glimpse future events.
If time really does exist in a spatial sense – and if it's true that time is a construct of the human mind – then perhaps in some way future events may already be present, just as past events are still present.
Admittedly, this is very difficult to make sense of. But why should everything make sense to us? As I have suggested in a recent book, there must be some aspects of reality that are beyond our comprehension. After all, we're just animals, with a limited awareness of reality. And perhaps more than any other phenomenon, this is especially true of time.
Might as well face it, you're addicted to love.
- Many writers have commented on the addictive qualities of love. Science agrees.
- The reward system of the brain reacts similarly to both love and drugs
- Someday, it might be possible to treat "love addiction."
Since people started writing, they've written about love. The oldest love poem known dates back to the 21st century BCE. For most of that time, writers also apparently have been of two (or more) minds about it, announcing that love can be painful, impossible to quit, or even addictive — while also mentioning how nice it is.
The idea of love as an addiction is one that is both familiar and unsettling. Surely it can't be the case that our mutual love with our partner — a thing that can produce euphoria, consumes a great deal of our time, and which we fear losing — can be compared to a drug habit? But indeed, many scientists have turned their attention to the idea of "love addiction" and how your brain on drugs might resemble your brain in love.
Love and other drugs
In a 2017 article published in the journal Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, a team of neuroethicists considered the idea that love is addicting and held the idea up to science for scrutiny.
They point out that the leading model of addiction rests on the notion of a drug causing the brain to release an unnatural level of reward chemicals, such as dopamine, effectively hijacking the brain's reward system. This phenomenon isn't strictly limited to drugs, though they are more effective at this process than other things. Rats can get a similar rush from sugar as from cocaine, and they can have terrible withdrawal symptoms when the sugar crash kicks in.
On the structural level, there is a fair amount of overlap between the parts of the brain that handle love and pair-bonding and the parts that deal with addiction and reward processing. When inside an MRI machine and asked to think about the person they love romantically, the reward centers of people's brains light up like Broadway.
Love as an addiction
These facts lead the authors to consider two ideas, dubbed the "narrow" and "broad" views of love as an addiction.
The narrow view holds that addiction is the result of abnormal brain processes that simply don't exist in non-addicts. Under this paradigm, "food-seeking or love-seeking behaviors are not truly the result of addiction, no matter how addiction-like they may outwardly appear." It could be that abnormal processes cause the brain's reward system to misfire when exposed to love and to react to it excessively.
If this model is accurate, love addiction would be a rare thing — one study puts it around five to ten percent of the population — but could be considered a disorder similar to others and caused by faulty wiring in the brain. As with other addictions, this malfunction of the reward system could lead to an inability to fully live a typical life, difficulty having healthy relationships, and a number of other negative consequences.
The broad view looks at addiction differently, perhaps even radically.
It begins with the idea that addiction exists on a spectrum of motivations. All of our appetites, including those for food and water, exist on this spectrum and activate similar parts of the brain when satisfied. We can have appetites for anything that taps into our reward system, including food, gambling, sex, drugs, and love. For most people most of the time, our appetites are fairly temperate, if recurring. I might be slightly "addicted" to food — I do need some a few times per day — but that "addiction" doesn't have any negative effects on my health.
An appetite for cocaine, however, is rarely temperate and usually dangerous. Likewise, a person's appetite for love could reach addiction levels, and a person could be considered "hooked" on relationships (or on a particular person). This would put love addiction at the extreme end of the spectrum.
None of this is to say that the authors think that love is bad for you just because it can resemble an addiction. Love addiction is not the same as cocaine addiction at the neurological level: important differences, like how long it takes for the desire for another "hit" to occur, do exist. Rather, the authors see this as an opportunity to reconsider our approach to addiction in general and to think about how we can help the heartsick when they just can't seem to get over their last relationship.
Is "love addiction" a treatable disorder?
Hypothetically, a neurological basis for an addiction to love could point toward interventions that "correct" for it. If the narrow view of addiction is accurate, perhaps some people will be able to seek treatment for love addiction in the same way that others seek help to quit smoking. If the broad view of addiction is correct, the treatment of love addiction would be unlikely as it may be difficult to properly identify where the cutoff of acceptability on a spectrum should be.
Either way, since love is generally held in high regard by all cultures and doesn't quite seem to be in the same category as a bad cocaine habit in terms of social undesirability, the authors doubt we'll be treating anyone for "love addiction" anytime soon.
A school lesson leads to more precise measurements of the extinct megalodon shark, one of the largest fish ever.
- A new method estimates the ancient megalodon shark was as long as 65 feet.
- The megalodon was one of the largest fish that ever lived.
- The new model uses the width of shark teeth to estimate its overall size.
A Florida student figured out a way to more accurately measure the size of one of the largest fish that ever lived – the extinct megalodon shark – and found that it was even larger than previously estimated.
The megalodon (officially named Otodus megalodon, which means "Big Tooth") lived between 3.6 and 23 million years ago and was thought to be about 34 feet long on average, reaching the maximum length of 60 feet. Now a new study puts that number at up to 65 feet (20 meters).
Homework assignment leads to a discovery
The study, published in Palaeontologia Electronica, used new equations extrapolated from the width of megalodon's teeth to make the improved estimates. The paper's lead author, Victor Perez, developed the revised methodology while he was a doctoral student at the Florida Museum of Natural History. He got the idea while teaching students, noticing a range of discrepancies in the results they were getting.
Students were supposed to calculate the size of megalodon based on the ancient fish's similarities to the modern great white shark. They utilized the commonly accepted method of linking the height of a shark's tooth to its total body length. As the press release from the Florida Museum of Natural History expounds, this method involves locating the anatomical position of a tooth in the shark's jaw, measuring the tooth "from the tip of the crown to the line where root and crown meet," and using that number in an appropriate equation.
But while carrying out calculations in this way, some of Perez's students thought the shark would have been just 40 feet long, while others were calculating 148 feet. Teeth located toward the back of the mouth were yielding the largest estimates.
"I was going around, checking, like, did you use the wrong equation? Did you forget to convert your units?" said Perez, currently the assistant curator of paleontology at the Calvert Marine Museum in Maryland. "But it very quickly became clear that it was not the students that had made the error. It was simply that the equations were not as accurate as we had predicted."
Found in North Carolina, these 46 fossils are the most complete set of megalodon teeth ever excavated.Credit: Jeff Gage/Florida Museum
The new approach
Perez's math exercise demonstrated that the equations in use since 2002 were generating different size estimates for the same shark based on which tooth was being measured. Because megalodon teeth are most often found as standalone fossils, Perez focused on a nearly complete set of teeth donated by a fossil collector to design a new approach.
Perez also had help from Teddy Badaut, an avocational paleontologist in France, who suggested using tooth width instead of height, which would be proportional to the length of its body. Another collaborator on the revised method was Ronny Maik Leder, then a postdoctoral researcher at the Florida Museum, who aided in the development of the new set of equations.
The research team analyzed the widths of fossil teeth that came from 11 individual sharks of five species, which included megalodon and modern great white sharks, and created a model that connects how wide a tooth was to the size of the jaw for each species.
"I was quite surprised that indeed no one had thought of this before," shared Leder, who is now director of the Natural History Museum in Leipzig, Germany. "The simple beauty of this method must have been too obvious to be seen. Our model was much more stable than previous approaches. This collaboration was a wonderful example of why working with amateur and hobby paleontologists is so important."
Why use teeth?
In general, almost nothing of the super-shark survived to this day, other than a few vertebrae and a large number of big teeth. The megalodon's skeleton was made of lightweight cartilage that decomposed after death. But teeth, with enamel that preserves very well, are "probably the most structurally stable thing in living organisms," Perez said. Considering that megalodons lost thousands of teeth during a lifetime, these are the best resources we have in trying to figure out information about these long-gone giants.
Researchers suggest megalodon's large jaws were very thick, made for grabbing prey and breaking its bones, exerting a bite force of up to 108,500 to 182,200 newtons.
Megalodon tooth compared to two great white shark teeth. Credit: Brocken Inaglory / Wikimedia.
Limitations of the new model
While the new model is better than previous methods, it's still far from perfect in precisely figuring out the sizes of animals which lived so long ago and left behind few if any full remains. Because individual sharks come in a variety of sizes, Perez warned that even their new estimates have an error range of about 10 feet when it comes to the largest animals.
Other ambiguities may affect the results, such as the width of the megalodon's jaw and the size of the gaps between its teeth, neither of which are accurately known. "There's still more that could be done, but that would probably require finding a complete skeleton at this point," Perez pointed out.
How did the megalodon go extinct?
Environmental changes that led to fluctuations in sea levels and disturbed ecosystems in the oceans likely led to the demise of these enormous ancient sharks. They were just too big to be sustained by diminishing food resources, says the ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research.
A 2018 study suggested that a supernova 2.6 million years ago hit Earth's atmosphere with so much cosmic energy that it resulted in climate change. The cosmic rays that included particles called muons might have caused a mass extinction of giant ocean animals ("the megafauna") that included the megalodon by causing mutations and cancer.
Scientists, led by Adrian Melott, professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at the University of Kansas, estimated that "the cancer rate would go up about 50 percent for something the size of a human — and the bigger you are, the worse it is. For an elephant or a whale, the radiation dose goes way up," as he explained in a press release.
A brief passage from a recent UN report describes what could be the first-known case of an autonomous weapon, powered by artificial intelligence, killing in the battlefield.
- Autonomous weapons have been used in war for decades, but artificial intelligence is ushering in a new category of autonomous weapons.
- These weapons are not only capable of moving autonomously but also identifying and attacking targets on their own without oversight from a human.
- There's currently no clear international restrictions on the use of new autonomous weapons, but some nations are calling for preemptive bans.
Nothing transforms warfare more violently than new weapons technology. In prehistoric times, it was the club, the spear, the bow and arrow, the sword. The 16th century brought rifles. The World Wars of the 20th century introduced machine guns, planes, and atomic bombs.
Now we might be seeing the first stages of the next battlefield revolution: autonomous weapons powered by artificial intelligence.
In March, the United Nations Security Council published an extensive report on the Second Libyan War that describes what could be the first-known case of an AI-powered autonomous weapon killing people in the battlefield.
The incident took place in March 2020, when soldiers with the Government of National Accord (GNA) were battling troops supporting the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar (called Haftar Affiliated Forces, or HAF, in the report). One passage describes how GNA troops may have used an autonomous drone to kill retreating HAF soldiers:
"Logistics convoys and retreating HAF were subsequently hunted down and remotely engaged by the unmanned combat aerial vehicles or the lethal autonomous weapons systems such as the STM Kargu-2... and other loitering munitions. The lethal autonomous weapons systems were programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true 'fire, forget and find' capability."
Still, because the GNA forces were also firing surface-to-air missiles at the HAF troops, it's currently difficult to know how many, if any, troops were killed by autonomous drones. It's also unclear whether this incident represents anything new. After all, autonomous weapons have been used in war for decades.
Lethal autonomous weapons
Lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) are weapon systems that can search for and fire upon targets on their own. It's a broad category whose definition is debatable. For example, you could argue that land mines and naval mines, used in battle for centuries, are LAWS, albeit relatively passive and "dumb." Since the 1970s, navies have used active protection systems that identify, track, and shoot down enemy projectiles fired toward ships, if the human controller chooses to pull the trigger.
Then there are drones, an umbrella term that commonly refers to unmanned weapons systems. Introduced in 1991 with unmanned (yet human-controlled) aerial vehicles, drones now represent a broad suite of weapons systems, including unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), loitering munitions (commonly called "kamikaze drones"), and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), to name a few.
Some unmanned weapons are largely autonomous. The key question to understanding the potential significance of the March 2020 incident is: what exactly was the weapon's level of autonomy? In other words, who made the ultimate decision to kill: human or robot?
The Kargu-2 system
One of the weapons described in the UN report was the Kargu-2 system, which is a type of loitering munitions weapon. This type of unmanned aerial vehicle loiters above potential targets (usually anti-air weapons) and, when it detects radar signals from enemy systems, swoops down and explodes in a kamikaze-style attack.
Kargu-2 is produced by the Turkish defense contractor STM, which says the system can be operated both manually and autonomously using "real-time image processing capabilities and machine learning algorithms" to identify and attack targets on the battlefield.
STM | KARGU - Rotary Wing Attack Drone Loitering Munition System youtu.be
In other words, STM says its robot can detect targets and autonomously attack them without a human "pulling the trigger." If that's what happened in Libya in March 2020, it'd be the first-known attack of its kind. But the UN report isn't conclusive.
It states that HAF troops suffered "continual harassment from the unmanned combat aerial vehicles and lethal autonomous weapons systems," which were "programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true 'fire, forget and find' capability."
What does that last bit mean? Basically, that a human operator might have programmed the drone to conduct the attack and then sent it a few miles away, where it didn't have connectivity to the operator. Without connectivity to the human operator, the robot would have had the final call on whether to attack.
Key line 2: The loitering munitions/LAWS (depending upon how you frame it) were enabled to attack without data conn… https://t.co/5u89cDDA60— Jack McDonald (@Jack McDonald)1622114029.0
To be sure, it's unclear if anyone died from such an autonomous attack in Libya. In any case, LAWS technology has evolved to the point where such attacks are possible. What's more, STM is developing swarms of drones that could work together to execute autonomous attacks.
Noah Smith, an economics writer, described what these attacks might look like on his Substack:
"Combined with A.I., tiny cheap little battery-powered drones could be a huge game-changer. Imagine releasing a networked swarm of autonomous quadcopters into an urban area held by enemy infantry, each armed with little rocket-propelled fragmentation grenades and equipped with computer vision technology that allowed it to recognize friend from foe."
But could drones accurately discern friend from foe? After all, computer-vision systems like facial recognition don't identify objects and people with perfect accuracy; one study found that very slightly tweaking an image can lead an AI to miscategorize it. Can LAWS be trusted to differentiate between a soldier with a rifle slung over his back and, say, a kid wearing a backpack?
Opposition to LAWS
Unsurprisingly, many humanitarian groups are concerned about introducing a new generation of autonomous weapons to the battlefield. One such group is the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, whose 2018 survey of roughly 19,000 people across 26 countries found that 61 percent of respondents said they oppose the use of LAWS.
In 2018, the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons issued a rather vague set of guidelines aiming to restrict the use of LAWS. One guideline states that "human responsibility must be retained when it comes to decisions on the use of weapons systems." Meanwhile, at least a couple dozen nations have called for preemptive bans on LAWS.
The U.S. and Russia oppose such bans, while China's position is a bit ambiguous. It's impossible to predict how the international community will regulate AI-powered autonomous weapons in the future, but among the world's superpowers, one assumption seems safe: If these weapons provide a clear tactical advantage, they will be used on the battlefield.