P.W. Singer on the Ethics of New Military Technologies

Question: Do we need to re-evaluate the ethics of war?

Singer:    One of the challenges of these new technologies is not just that we’re living in denial over what’s going on, but that we’re often sort of overwhelmed by them.  And one of the groups that I met with for the book were people at the Red Cross and another one was the Human Rights Watch.  There’s an interesting thing that someone at the International Red Cross said to me about this where he said, “You know what, there’s so much bad going on in the world right now, how can we waste time on thinking about the laws that surround these new things like unmanned systems and robotics and its completely valid answer.”  There is a ton of bad things going on in the world.  But, for me, what’s interesting is you could have said the exact same thing in 1939 or 1944.  There’s so much bad going on in the world, why should we waste time trying to figure out what’s going on with this new thing called atomic bombs.  That’s just, you know, fantasy.  That’s just science fiction.  So the result is we weren’t ready for it.  There’s a broader question of the ethical issues that surround these systems is does it make war crimes more or less likely.  That is, some people think you can put morality into these machines.  You can put ethical codes into them, sort of equivalent to like Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws, and so you could have as one scientist put it, more ethical killing devices and that they would follow rules that maybe soldiers wouldn’t.  So, for example, a lot of war crimes happen when a soldier’s buddy is killed and rage takes over and they lash out against local civilians.  Robots don’t have emotions so you wouldn’t have that happen.  They can also be a lot more discriminating.  They… a soldier has to burst into a room in a microsecond figure out who’s the threat or not and shoot and shoot, and sometimes they make mistakes.  A robot can go into a room, take its time, figure out who’s the threat and you don’t have to worry about the person dying behind them.  That’s true, but, machines can’t be moral by the very definition of morality.  They don’t have empathy.  They don’t have a sense of guilt.  So to a machine, 80-year-old grandmother in a wheelchair is just the same as a T-80 tank except for a couple of 1s and 0s that are different in the programming language, and that’s got to be disturbing to us in a certain way.

The author speaks to the absence of morality in a fully mechanized war

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Originally Poe envisioned a parrot, not a raven

Quoth the parrot — "Nevermore."

The Green Parrot by Vincent van Gogh, 1886
Culture & Religion

By his mid-30s, Edgar Allan Poe was not only weary by the hardships of poverty, but also regularly intoxicated — by more than just macabre visions. Despite this, the Gothic writer lucidly insisted that there was still a method to his madness when it came to devising poems.

In an essay titled "The Philosophy of Composition," published in 1846 in Graham's Magazine, Poe divulged how his creative process worked, particularly in regard to his most famous poem: "No one point in [The Raven's] composition is rerferrible either to accident or intuition… the work proceeded step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem."

That said, contrary to the popular idea that Edgar Allan Poe penned his poems in single bursts of inspiration, The Raven did not pour out from his quivering quill in one fell swoop. Rather it came about through a calculative process — one that included making some pretty notable changes, even to its avian subject.

As an example of how his mind worked, Poe describes in his essay that originally the bird that flew across the dreary scene immortalized in the poem was actually… a parrot.

Poe had pondered ways he could have his one word refrain, "nevermore," continuously repeated throughout the poem. With that aim, he instantly thought of a parrot because it was a creature capable of uttering words. However, as quickly as Poe had found his feathered literary device, he became concerned with the bird's form on top of its important function.

And as it turns out, the parrot, a pretty resplendent bird, did not perch so well in Poe's mind because it didn't fit the mood he was going for—melancholy, "the most legitimate of all the poetical tones." In solving this dilemma in terms of imagery, he made adjustments to its plumage, altogether transforming the parrot — bestowing it with a black raiment.

"Very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone," Poe explained in his piece in Graham's. "I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven — the bird of ill omen — monotonously repeating the one word, 'Nevermore,' at the conclusion of each stanza, in a poem of melancholy tone…"

It was with these aesthetic calculations that Poe ousted the colorful bird that first flew into his mind, and welcomed the darker one that fluttered in:

In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore…

The details of the poem — including the bird's appearance — needed to all blend together, like a recipe, to bring out the somber concept he was trying to convey: the descent into madness of a bereaved lover, a man lamenting the loss of a beautiful woman named Lenore. With that in mind, quoth the parrot — "nevermore" just doesn't have the same grave effect.

* * *

If you'd like to read more about Edgar Allan Poe, click here to review how his contemporaries tried to defame him in an attempt to thwart his success.

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