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Global Media Forum

June 4, 2009

There are thousands of autonomous robots on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, but their use in warfare poses massive ethical problems, says popular scientist Noel Sharkey.

A scene from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
Robots and war: not just a Hollywood fantasyImage: dpa

If it were up to popular scientist, engineer and robot expert Noel Sharkey, media presenters might have to find a new line of work. Robots, says the University of Sheffield professor, would have no trouble memorizing their lines, looking into the right camera, or running a self-drive broadcast studio.

Fortunately, robots still lack a few crucial elements: personality, for example, and human judgment. So don't throw in your microphone just yet. In fact, thrust it under Noel Sharkey’s nose for a captivating story from a man who's not only a treasure chest of expertise on all things robotic - from the eggshell ethics of autonomous weaponry, biology-inspired artificial intelligence and designing robots that can express human emotion to children's TV shows where toy robots battle it out.

He's also not short on personality himself - or a first-rate sense of humor. After all, how many neuro-computing specialists can keep a straight face while telling The Guardian newspaper that solving a problem is like experiencing an "intellectual orgasm"?

A diverse career

Noel Sharkey
Noel Sharkey was a special guest at DW's Global Media Forum

Sharkey left school at the early age of 15. He had big ideas of becoming a legendary rock star, until he tripped on LSD in 1968 at the age of 20 and starting thinking about thought.

His passion for the mind and mechanism kicked Sharkey into the world of academia, landing his first research stint at Yale University.

Since then, he has worked and taught in many disciplines ranging from psychology, engineering, philosophy, cognitive science, linguistics, artificial intelligence research and computer science.

At this year’s Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum in Bonn, Noel Sharkey hosted a showcase workshop on the ethical use of robots and the implications for public safety and human rights, with a focus on autonomous robot weapons in warfare.

Ethical dilemma

A drone dropping an inert bomb at a test range
The use of drones contradicts international guidelines, Sharkey saidImage: AP

"There are between four and six thousand robots currently operating on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan," Sharkey said.

The proliferation of armed unmanned robots would not only change the nature of conflict considerably; it also presents an urgent need for international guidelines and careful consideration of the implications, particularly for third parties.

Autonomous robots cannot distinguish civilians from combatants, said Sharkey.

"Allowing them to make decisions about who to kill would fall foul of the fundamental ethical precepts of a just war under jus in bello as enshrined in the Geneva and Hague conventions and the various protocols set up to protect civilians, wounded soldiers, the sick, the mentally ill, and captives.

"There are no visual or sensing systems up to that challenge," he added.

Click on the audio link below to listen to the complete interview with Noel Sharkey, conducted by Anke Rasper.

Author: Wilfried Solbach / Kate Bowen

Editor: Sean Sinico