Waterloo-based robotic vehicle manufacturer Clearpath Robotics is the first robotics company to sign on with the Campaign To Stop Killer Robots, “an international coalition of non-governmental organisations working to ban fully autonomous weapons.”
The aptly-named Campaign To Stop Killer Robots seeks legislation and regulation that would block people from having access to or creating robotic weapons that can make decisions to kill without human intervention.
As the main conceit behind the campaign goes, “giving machines the power to decide who lives and dies on the battlefield is an unacceptable application of technology.”
Meghan Hennessey, marketing communications manager at Clearpath, told Business Insider, “I came across the campaign, and [company CTO and co-founder] Ryan Gariepy was on board with their ideas. We’re the first company in the robotics industry to step forward on this issue.”
Clearpath is a five-year-old company gaining massive traction in research and development for unmanned robotics. Its client list is impressive, boasting names like the Canadian Space Agency, Google, and MIT. Most interestingly, this list also includes the Department of National Defence and the Navy — exactly the entities that might want a fully autonomous weapon that can function without a human operator.
“Even though we’re not building weapons now, that might become an opportunity for us in the future,” said Hennessey. “We’re choosing to value our ethics over potential future revenue.”
Cofounder Ryan Gariepy has written an open letter to express the company’s stance on the issue. It appears in its entirety below.
To the people against killer robots: we support you.
This technology has the potential to kill indiscriminately and to proliferate rapidly; early prototypes already exist. Despite our continued involvement with Canadian and international military research and development, Clearpath Robotics believes that the development of killer robots is unwise, unethical, and should be banned on an international scale.
How do we define “killer robot”? Is it any machine developed for military purposes? Any machine which takes actions without human direction? No. We’re referring specifically to “lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS)”; systems where a human does not make the final decision for a machine to take a potentially lethal action.
Clearpath Robotics is an organisation that engineers autonomous vehicles, systems, and solutions for a global market. As current leaders in the research and development space for unmanned vehicles, making this kind of statement is a risk. However, given the potentially horrific consequences of allowing development of lethal autonomous robots to continue, we are compelled to insist upon the strictest regulation of this technology.
The Double-Edged Sword
There are, of course, pros and cons to the ethics of autonomous lethal weapons and our team has debated many of them at length. In the end, however, we, as a whole, feel the negative implications of these systems far outweigh any benefits.
Is a computer paired with the correct technology less likely to make rash, stress-driven decisions while under fire? Possibly. Conversely, would a robot have the morality, sense, or emotional understanding to intervene against orders that are wrong or inhumane? No. Would computers be able to make the kinds of subjective decisions required for checking the legitimacy of targets and ensuring the proportionate use of force in the foreseeable future? No. Could this technology lead those who possess it to value human life less? Quite frankly, we believe this will be the case.
This is an incredibly complex issue. We need to have this discussion now and take a stance; the robotics revolution has arrived and is not going to wait for these debates to occur.
Clearpath Robotics strives to improve the lives of billions by automating the world’s dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs. This belief does not preclude the use of autonomous robots in the military; we will continue to support our military clients and provide them with autonomous systems – especially in areas with direct civilian applications such as logistics, reconnaissance, and search and rescue.
In our eyes, no nation in the world is ready for killer robots — technologically, legally, or ethically. More importantly, we see no compelling justification that this technology needs to exist in human hands. After all, the development of killer robots isn’t a necessary step on the road to self-driving cars, robot caregivers, safer manufacturing plants, or any of the other multitudes of ways autonomous robots can make our lives better. Robotics is at a tipping point, and it’s up to all of us to decide what path this technology takes.
As a company which continues to develop robots for various militaries worldwide, Clearpath Robotics has more to lose than others might by advocating entire avenues of research be closed off. Nevertheless, we call on anyone who has the potential to influence public policy to stop the development of killer robots before it’s too late.
We encourage those who might see business opportunities in this technology to seek other ways to apply their skills and resources for the betterment of humankind. Finally, we ask everyone to consider the many ways in which this technology would change the face of war for the worse. Voice your opinion and take a stance. #killerrobots
Cofounder & CTO, Clearpath Robotics