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During the last five years, the United States military has increasingly turned to drones, robots, and robotic weapons systems in its wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. This shifting reliance on robotic technology not only promises increased efficiency and effectiveness, but also holds out the promise of reducing American combat casualties. Robots enter hazardous areas that would pose intolerable risks to human beings but what are the dangers when human beings are removed from the loop? As weapons systems become more autonomous, human beings play an increasingly insignificant role in the decision to fire those weapons. As unmanned combat vehicles are increasingly able to fire upon suspected enemy combatants, American drone operators are safely shielded from direct retaliation. But what is the cost of killing when there is no risk of retaliation? These challenges were addressed by three panelists in our Exploring Ethics program of September 2009.
John P. Sullins is an associate Professor at Sonoma State University in California where he has taught for six years. He received his PhD in 2002 form the Philosophy, Computers, and Cognitive Science program at Binghamton University in New York. His current research and publications involve the study of computer ethics, malware ethics, and the analysis of the ethical impacts personal robotics technology is having on our lives. He has given numerous public and academic lectures on these topics and has published numerous papers. He lives in Sonoma County with his wife and two daughters.
Barbara Fletcher is an ocean engineer and project manager at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center – Pacific (SSC), specializing in unmanned undersea vehicle (UUV) applications. She is one of the co-authors of the US Navy’s UUV Master Plan (April 2000) and Master Plan Update (Nov 2004), providing the guidelines for the Navy’s future use and development of unmanned undersea vehicles. Among other efforts, she is the project manager for the SSC portion of the Hybrid Remotely Operated Vehicle project, working in league with the Woods Hole
Oceanographic Institution to build an 11,000 m capable vehicle. Over
the past 25 years, she has worked both in government and industry on vehicle systems for mine countermeasures, structure inspection, ship hull inspection, and various scientific efforts. She has a BS and MS in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University, and is a Registered Professional Engineer in the state of California. She is active in a range of professional societies, including being a member of the IEEE Oceanic Society Advisory Committee and chair of the San Diego Chapter of the Marine Technology Society.