Why bother with super-soldiers when we could just use machines?

Here’s our final comments in our theme of super-soldiers. A number of people have wondered what is the point of super-soldiers? And indicate that either a large number of conventional soldiers or machines could do create the same effects. This is interesting because it shows that conventional soldiers might not have the capabilities for the future of conflict, but also that neither conventional nor super-soldiers are likely to be good enough for future conflict, which machines may be.

So, here are our thoughts on this question:

In regards to whether States should bother with super soldiers when machines could be used instead, I will consider this in relation to machines completely replacing soldiers (ignoring whether this is feasible or not).  Super soldiers, it can be said, would provide States with the best of both worlds. Super soldiers would possess capabilities that exceed regular soldiers but would still maintain the ‘human connection traditionally associated with war’ (even if it is recognised that the human connection is diminished by human enhancement).  Sawin acknowledges the concern that a lack of human connection could lead to ‘rogue killing machines at the centre of a battlefield’. It may well be the case that States will eventually seek killer robots as a replacement for regular soldiers but in the mean time, super soldiers provide a midway point by possessing machine like qualities without the perceived greater risk of killer robots.  Furthermore, the utilisation of super soldiers does not necessarily mean that machines will not be used in the future. It could be perceived that the development of super soldiers is just another step in the move towards killing machines.

Liam Halewood, Liverpool University 

To adjust this question slightly, I might suggest why bother with soldiers at all, when we could just use machines? With the increasing ‘robotisation’ of the armed forces, and indeed civilian life, we have something of a crisis emerging in society today where the human is becoming more like the machine, and the machine is becoming more like the human. Where will this stop? Why do we even try to make the machine more human in the first place?

Ultimately, I think, the ‘super-soldier’ will come about whether it is funded by the military or not. As a society, we have been working for many years now to alter the human condition – to extend and improve the quality of human life through the application of science and technology. Whether we like it or not, the human soldiers of the next century will most likely be relatively ‘super’ compared to the soldiers we were sending into the trenches in the First World War.

But then why not just send in the machines in the first place? I think here the question becomes one of what we foresee the purpose of war being in the future. Are the wars of territory now long past? If so then will we be in a position again where we need humans for humanitarian or ‘hearts and minds’ purposes when a robot is so much more effective at killing? When we start to consider the future implications of war in space, again it would seem the robot would be a preferable option. But then how can one sue for peace with a robot? Can a robot ever adapt to a new environment as well as a human?

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

When we talk about machines in warfare, we usually talk of autonomous weapon systems, or killer robots. There are generally two camps. Those which think they are an affront to ethics and want them to be banned, or those who see the utility of them as an incredibly useful weapon in future warfare. Nobody really is pushing for the total absence of human-beings in lethal decisions-making because they think it is a good thing. Indeed, most people how are seen as being in the ‘pro’ camp are usually arguing that there is nothing explicitly unlawful about them, rather than that they will be a good idea.

This leads us to the main point, that often in warfare there are tricky decisions to be made. No programmer or manufacturer of an autonomous weapon could ever imagine all scenarios, even if said manufacturer only employed veterans. These situations often rely upon human judgment, and sometimes they get it wrong. But, I was at a lecture recently where an ex-army officer said that these tricky situations was one of the reasons that an officer class exists, to take such decisions on behalf of their subordinates and suffer the consequences for them.

There will be some decisions that are black and white, such as ‘he is wearing an enemy uniform, he is my enemy, therefore I can target him’. This wouldn’t require a referral to a higher authority, whether the entity making the decision is human or machine. But, where there are a number of civilians around and the level of military advantage which could be gained compared to the collateral damage which could be expected in unclear, a trickier decision appears. Referral to a human here would be really useful for avoiding unfortunate incidents with large or unnecessary collateral damage. But, to have a system require attention and for a human to jump into being brought up to speed straight away and immersed in the situation may take too long for decisions to be made. For example, an enemy may escape before a decision is made, or before a school bus comes into the expected blast radius. Thus, here cognitively-enhanced humans would be a great addition if they could comprehend complex situations quickly and make decisions quicker. One f the main reasons for potentially using autonomous weapons is the increased speed at which they can operate, enhanced humans would also increase the speed of operations, without necessarily loosing the human touch to complex decisions and scenarios.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University.

What do you think?

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