The ethics of the Dallas Police Department robot

09 July 2016 12:43 pm

The black US Army reservist who shot dead five officers during a Dallas 'Black Lives Matter' protest was shot by a police robot.

Dallas police chief David O Brown told reporters that a hostage negotiator was able to talk with the suspect for hours before police determined they had no choice but to move in and use a robot. It was the first time ever the cops had used a robot.

The use of a robot for a police matter raises new ethical questions.

“The further we remove the officer from the use of force and the consequences that come with it, the easier it becomes to use that tactic,” said Rick Nelson, a fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies and a former counterterrorism official on the National Security Council told the New York Times.

“It’s what we have done with drones in warfare. In warfare, your object is to kill.”

It’s important to remember that these robots aren’t autonomous machines acting on their own accord. They are operated by human beings.

The Dallas Police Department’s unprecedented use of an explosive-laden robot to kill an armed suspect ushers in a new phase in the militarization of U.S. police departments.

The tactic illustrates what police see as new opportunities for self-defense presented by advancing technologies and the transfer of second-hand military equipment to local police departments.

According to the Los Angeles Times, billions of dollars’ worth of surplus military equipment have been put into the hands of local police agencies.

“The Pentagon set up a program in 1997 that gave unneeded military equipment such as mine-resistant armored vehicles, grenade launchers and bomb-disposal robots to local police for free. It also includes more mundane things like clothing and office supplies, tools and rescue equipment. Since its inception, the program has transferred more than $6 billion worth of property to more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies enrolled in the program.”

Alarming stuff in light of the way the Pentagon shipped military equipment to police following the Ferguson riots last year.

All this raises enormous ethical issues. Are robots still “tools” if they’re used to kill? As Toby Walsh, a professor of artificial intelligence at the University of New South Wales says, it becomes ethically fraught when the robots are fully automated.

“It is only a small step to take the human out of the loop and replace them with a computer,” Walsh told Scientific American.
“In the last few months, we've seen the U.S. Navy trial its first autonomous ship. We've had the first death caused by an autonomous car. These are technologies that are very near.”