catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

When robots kill – who is to be accountable?

with 2 comments

Science fiction and science fact are getting closer in the military world – and those worried about the “rise of the machines” should perhaps start digging their mountain bunker now. Both sci-fi blogs and tech blogs have been providing commentary recently on Samsung’s IS&S Guard Robot.

The system uses twin optical and infrared sensors to identify targets from 2.5 miles in daylight and around half that distance at night. It has a microphone and speakers so that passwords can be exchanged with human troops. If the password is not accepted the robot can either sound an alarm or fire at the target using rubber bullets or a swivel-mounted K-3 machine gun.” (

The system is being developed primarily for deployment along the South Korean side of the  DMZ, but will reportedly also be used to defend other sensitive areas such as airfields.The IS&S Guard Robot looks for all the world like a cross between Johnny 5 and the sentry gun from Aliens. And that’s basically what it is – a stationary defensive system, but with the ability to interact with potential targets and make a decision about if (and when) to fire on the target.

According to the specs, the weapon interface can be fitted with either lethal or non lethal weapons. For this reason, I suspect we could see this system (or it’s descendents) deployed more widely than just the DMZ. And this raises an interesting question in my mind – who is going to be held accountable when one of these units fires upon someone it perhaps shouldn’t have. e.g. a civilian/refugee who is trying to flee a combat area and has wandered into the defensive zone of one of these systems, or perhaps a drunk who finds themselves taking a shortcut through property guarded by one of these units.

Since the robot is only responding to it’s programming, it’s hard to imagine the robot being held accountable for its actions. If it’s opened fire due to a bug in its programming, then I’d imagine there could be a hefty lawsuit heading the way of Samsung.

However if the robot was performing within its programming, then I’d expect that whoever deployed the unit, and possibly whoever authorised it’s deployment, are going to be the ones with their butts on the line. In a military setting, I’d see this as analogous to holding an officer (or SNCO) accountable for issuing inappropriate rules of engagement to their troops, or incorrectly deploying some other form of lethal defensive obstacle such as a minefield.

In fact – I see a few similarities between this sort of system and a minefield.  Both are stationary defensive obstacles. And both could potentially kill you without any human intervention at all.  I’d therefore argue that accountability for the actions of the system rest with whoever authorises the deployment of the unit, so long as those physically setting deploying the system do their job correctly. If the unit is deployed incorrectly – then the soldier/tech deploying the unit is perhaps the one to be facing the tough questions.

Written by Admin

December 9, 2006 at 4:27 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. HeathG:
    I haven’t commented here because, after musing on this issue for a long time, I still don’t have answers.

    Graham Bell

    December 10, 2006 at 9:03 pm

  2. Graham,

    Rereading my post, I still don’t think I have nailed this topic, or written this as clearly as I could have.

    The minefield analogy came to me after someone on another blog complained about this being a fixed defensive system.

    A broader sort of question that stems from this is will robots (military or otherwise) ever be able to be held accountable for their actions, or will the buck always stop with a human being.


    December 11, 2006 at 8:52 am

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