Ethics Homework

Is “a ban on offensive autonomous weapons beyond meaningful human control” going to work?

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It was the year 3400 and Arduino hadn’t been able to leave his house for days. Every time he wrenched the twisted steel door of his trailer home open, he was greeted with a menacing blast of smoky air, filled with loud, angry voices yelling in the distance. Sure, he was down to his last box of stale Cheerios and hadn’t seen any faces besides his elderly aunt and five small cousins, but the world outside wasn’t much more appealing.

He heard a shrill voice call his name “ARNOLD!” He winced at the sound of his real name ringing through the small home “What did I say about keeping the computer in your room again? We don’t have any extra data to waste on your stupid robots.”

There was only one computer to share amongst the seven of them: his aunt used it to order food, whenever the Internet browser stopped buffering; his cousins Orby and Caitlin needed it to watch their ridiculously titled Vine compilations; and his other cousins Luke, Orrin, and Labhansh used it for cat videos. All he wanted to was decrypt the small black box he had recovered from the crash site, the black box that contained his parents’ last moments.

Arnold “Arduino” Schwarzanegger didn’t grow up in a crowded trailer home in the middle of a barren city. He once lived in a cozy house with his parents, the white picket fence, all that jazz. His mom and dad were engineers, meaning that even though their house was small, it was filled with creativity and ideas, innovation and passion. The walls were lined with Legos, sensors, gears, and any other random bits and bobs that he could use to build machines. While other children his age were off playing soccer in the park or going to the beach, he would sit at the dining room table, puttering away with his screwdriver and wrench.

Arnold got his nickname from his favorite toy: an Arduino. It was an old piece of technology by then, something that his parents has fished out of the waste bin at their job, but he loved it nonetheless. He could do anything he wanted on that little board. When he was seven, he made his teddy bear blink its eyes. At age ten, he made an alarm clock that would read out the time to him when it sounded off. As soon as he hit his teenage years, he installed a motion sensor on the edge of his door frame to let him know when his parents were going to try and bother him in his room.

Caught up in his world of code and circuits, he didn’t realize that their life certainly wasn’t perfect: money was hard to come by and the world outside of their lawn was a scary place. He saw his father put water into his cereal milk more than once to stretch it out just a little bit further. He noticed when his mother flicked off the television as soon as he entered the room, trying to keep the reports of attacks and bombs and death out of his little brain. He wasn’t stupid, just oblivious.

It wasn’t until he was sixteen that all of the pieces in his mind started to click together.

Technology had been progressing for hundreds of years. Scientists and researchers and engineers were constantly figuring out newer, faster ways to transmit data, train algorithms, and make smaller devices. For the most part, these advances were welcomed with open arms and open wallets. Whenever the newest smartphone was released or a robot was intelligent enough to hold a conversation, people went crazy. They wanted more and more with each new development: faster Internet, self-driving cars, delivery drones.

But the path of history will always turn to war, and soon the scientists and researchers and engineers who were working on translation apps and smaller transistors were being recruited by militaries across the world. The public may have been happy with their new gadgets to order every holiday season but power moves were still being made. The news stories that his mother clicked off were about nuclear warheads being shot into the ocean and battleships running test drills for their fighter planes. The dictators, fascists, and nationalists of the world didn’t progress in their moral codes as time went on; their arsenals and staff progressed instead.

And soon his parents were caught up in the middle of it.

He remembered the day he got the news like it was yesterday. December 4th, a day that started off like any other day. The alarm clock he made when he was younger woke him up by loudly proclaiming that it was seven in the morning, time to wake up for school. The house had felt emptier than normal because his parents were travelling to one of their many conferences, this time in Russia. It was about the recent development of smart weapons, missiles that didn’t need a human to operate them and used an algorithm to detect enemies to shoot down instead.

Arduino’s parents were staunch opponents of the new weapons, being not only pacifists but also engineers that realized that, even though machines can perform simple tasks like building a car or checking out someone’s groceries, they couldn’t be trusted with deadly force. They didn’t want people to be killed in the name of glory or revenge or money, but they knew that having humans behind the barrel of a gun would be fewer lives lost. People were naturally compassionate, inclined to want to see the good in others and spare innocent lives. People were able to make quicker decisions, like what to do if a wanted terrorist had made their way into a plaza crowded with defenseless men, women, and children. People were able to assess the situation with less information, able to make assumptions and correlations that (at least most of the time) made sense.

They had written articles about their disapproval of the weapons, giving hypothetical situations where the algorithms, no matter how intelligent, would fail. Their most popular piece spoke of plane hijackings: a well-known and internationally feared terrorist takes over control of a commercial plane with the intention to fly it into some government building or national monument or populated area—what would happen if the country that was about to be attacked were to have autonomous weapons? Would it try to jam the radar on the plane so that it could be rerouted to another landing destination? Would it attempt to autopilot the controls, so that the terrorist could no longer pilot the plane themselves?

Based on the hundreds of papers detailing every line of code written for these weapons, the answer was C, none of the above. It would detect the threat, asses the collateral damage, and, upon seeing that it would be more harmful to let the plane crash into its intended target, would shoot it down. The lives that were lost would be lost in the name of national security, martyrs who died for their country.

Arduino never really paid attention to those articles. He was a teenager, more interested in holing up in his room than talking to his parents. He never thought that his life would soon become one of those articles, the most popular one in fact.

Ironically, the article written about his parents’ death ended up being read by fewer people than their original paper.


Arduino shook himself out of his daze, his hands still clutching the black box, the only part of the plane that had survived. He sighed and glanced out of his tiny window, the thick glass showing him empty roads with small fires burning here and there.

His parents’ death had started what they had feared the most: more war. The countries whose citizens were on that plane had declared a state of war and moved quickly to develop better, smarter, quicker weapons that could attack from farther distances. It wasn’t long before everyone seemed to forget what the point of the fight was and even who was part of which alliance. Instead, the world had become a pretty terrifying place, where leaving your home during the day was almost unheard of for fear of being targeted by the autonomous drones overhead or the self-driving tanks in the streets.

All of this because some power-hungry people wanted more power, more quickly.