Rules For Robots

As of last week, we now live in a country where a police department has used a robot to kill a suspect.

So far, this seems to be an unprecedented and isolated incident and addressing this is probably not as urgent as implementing reforms to prevent fatalities during police encounters or to prevent mass shootings. But using lethal force via robot as a law enforcement technique is a genie that seems very unlikely to go back into the bottle.

There is at least a possibility that this is going to become routine. There is also a chance that, in the near future, law enforcement will make the relatively short step from using a wheeled robot to kill a suspect to using a winged robot to kill a suspect. The current paradigm our government has for using drones to kill is a complicated patchwork of rules and guidelines, which the government may or may not be following and which still leads to usage that may or may not even be strictly legal. If we want our domestic law enforcement agencies to have better rules regulating their use of robots to deliver lethal force, then the time to start creating those rules was before this happened. Having failed that, we need to start asking the right questions and developing the right policy now.

When exactly are police allowed to use deadly force? By all accounts, the Dallas Police Department seems to have exhausted every option and met any criteria necessary to justify the use of deadly force, in this case. But prior to the Dallas shooting we were grappling already with nationwide issues about when, how, and against whom police officers use lethal force. Before we grant police departments an easier way to kill, we should have clearer, more uniform, and more enforceable standards governing the use of deadly force by law enforcement.

What existing rules apply to law enforcement using killer robots? Micah Johnson was not the first U.S. citizen to be intentionally killed using a robot; this is just the first time it has happened on U.S. soil. More public disclosure and political dialogue about the current rules governing the U.S. use of drones will help determine if any of the existing rules apply to police robots and if any of those are the policies we actually want applied to police robots or if they’re even the right policies to be governing drone use.

What is the difference between using a robot to kill and using some other weapon? This is a question that is brought up every time a new type of weapon is developed from crossbows to nuclear bombs and there are rarely clear, satisfactory answers. But we need to continue asking the questions and exploring what, if any, are the new moral implications of using robots to kill as opposed to other means.

How do lethal robots impact due process? The idea that citizens can’t be “deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law” is so important to our criminal justice system that it’s actually in two separate amendments in the Constitution. Micah Johnson was clearly not given due process before his life was taken, which, again, was almost certainly justified to prevent further loss of life. But using a robot to deliver deadly force requires more planning and forethought than using other types of force and it also involves much less immediate risk to the person using the deadly force. This question will be closely related to questions about general police use of lethal force but it needs to go further if we are going to create rules that prevent depriving people of due process.

Who is considered to have used deadly force when a robot is used to kill? Who is accountable? Autonomous robots are probably, hopefully, a ways off and, when they come, they will raise a whole range of other questions we’ll need to answer. For now, a person still has to have some level of control when a robot kills. And that means that, when a robot kills, a person is responsible and should be held accountable legally. But how do we determine which person? Is it the person who gave the order for the robot to be used, the person who arms it, the person who releases the bomb or other weapon? All of the above? If we’re going to be able to enforce any policies we create about robots we need to know who to hold accountable for the actions of the robot.

Who exactly is allowed to use a killer robot? There should be clear standards around training and experience levels required of whomever is making the decision to use a robot in a lethal manner and of whomever is actually operating the robot when it delivers deadly force.

Under what exact circumstances is law enforcement allowed to use a robot to kill a suspect? This is the most important question that we need to answer if we are going to prevent abuse, negligence, and overuse of lethal robots. There should be very circumspect and very stringent rules dictating the criteria and process that has to be implemented before lethal action with a robot can be taken. It’s not going to be easy to answer this or any of these questions, but, if we’re going to continue to advance technologies that kill, we have a moral obligation also to do the work to establish a legal framework to guide the use of these technologies.

Alexis Chapman is a Political Consultant and Writer specializing in all types of policy analysis, from international law to local ordinances. She’s lived in Australia, Ghana, Vermont, Hawaii, and Texas and has worked for small and large NGOs, state legislature, industry associations, and a variety of publications.