Look out, America: autonomous military drones may be coming soon to a Department of Defense near you.

In a piece for the National Journal, writer Joshua Foust details how lethal autonomous robots (LAR’s) have been in development for some time now.

Here’s a quote from Purdue University professor Samuel Liles on the potential benefit of LAR’s:

"If a drone's system is sophisticated enough, it could be less emotional, more selective and able to provide force in a way that achieves a tactical objective with the least harm," Liles said. "A lethal autonomous robot can aim better, target better, select better, and in general be a better asset with the linked ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] packages it can run."

But while Liles paints an optimistic picture of LAR use, many others in academia and policy circles are less certain about the realistic uses of LAR’s in modern warfare. For one, any LAR would have to be equipped with incredibly advanced enemy recognition technology in order to avoid killing innocent civilians that are often proximal to combatants in modern battles.

"It's one thing to use them in a conventional conflict," where large militaries fight away from dense population zones, "but we tend to fight asymmetric battles. And interventions aren’t only military campaigns -- the civilian effects matter,” said University of Denver professor Heather Roff.

Another factor that may push back how soon we see LAR’s used in combat is the risk of public outcry in the event of LAR malfunction. Foust talked to Will McCants, director of the Brookings Saban Center’s project on U.S relations with the Islamic world, about the difference in public perception when a robot, not a human, is responsible for unintended civilian casualties at war.

"Ultimately, the national security staff does not want to give up control of the conflict,” McCants said. "With an autonomous system, the consequences of failure are worse in the public's mind. There's something about human error that makes people more comfortable with collateral damage if a person does it.” 

Source: National Journal