Can Robots Stop Genocide?

This Sunday’s Washington Post contained a fascinating piece by’s John Pike.  In it, Pike predicts “Soon — years, not decades, from now — American armed robots will patrol on the ground as well, fundamentally transforming the face of battle.”  We all know that technology’s on the rise – so why does this matter?

A Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System

A Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System

Apparently, “Conventional war, even genocide, may be abolished by a robotic American Peace.”

How? “The excellence of American military technology makes it possible for U.S. forces to inflict vast damage upon the enemy while suffering comparatively modest harm in return.”

No human army could withstand such an onslaught. Such an adversary would present the enemy with the simple choice of martyrdom or flight. So equipped, America’s military would be irresistible in battle…

[T]he large-scale organized killing that has characterized six millenniums of human history could be ended by the fiat of the American Peace.

Genocide, and the failure of the outside word to intervene, could also become a thing of the past. The industrialized murder of the Holocaust could perhaps have been disrupted by Allied bombers, but subsequent genocides have been less institutionalized, and far less vulnerable to air power. Intervention would require infantry and a decision to accept casualties. Genocide prevention may be in the interest of our common humanity, but it has never been in the national interest. But with no body bags to explain to bewildered voters, America’s leaders may be less hesitant in the future about imposing an end to atrocities in places such as Darfur.

This is a silly analogy, but I got a Wii for Christmas, and ever since have been playing this tank shooting gameNow, I was raised in a pacifist, Quaker household and so friends and family find it pretty funny that I like this tank game so much.  My justification to them is that in this game the tanks are unmanned – so I’m not killing

Wii Tanks! game

Wii Tanks! game - Image from

people, just blowing up empty technology.  The genocide prevention possibilities aside – the possibility of so many robots fighting seems to me kind of like my love of the tank game.  Because the likelihood of other countries having this same technology isn’t very high.  So America would be willing to send our robots into the battlefield to kill actual living, breathing people.  And while Pike says that the choices are “martyrdom or surrender” he doesn’t take into account the fact that so many unwilling people are conscripted into military service, and those are often the ones sent to the front lines.  Will these robots be able to distinguish and help child soldiers when they go into Uganda to defeat the LRA?

I am all in favor of solutions that would help stop genocide and provide protection between genocidaires and innocent victims.  But I fear that Americans would be too willing to send these robots into battle, without thinking about the potential implications.

And over at Opinio Juris, Kenneth Anderson asks: “Is it so very hard to imagine a future, and a future technology, in which it was a war crime for the human, rather than the robot, to decide to fire the weapon?”

Image from a 2005 MSNBC article on the deployment of  Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection Systems.

Cross-posted in a guest post on


About Martha Heinemann Bixby

Advocacy. Politics. Life. Martha Heinemann Bixby.
This entry was posted in International and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s