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Architecture and morality

Our poll this week discusses whether a ban or moratorium should be put in place on development of armed autonomous systems, or ‘killer robots’ to use a less jargony term. It’s sparked an interesting debate in a related viewpoint piece by Sheffield-based roboticist Noel Sharkey about whether it’s appropriate for engineers to make ethical judgements about their work and its applications. Some respondents have said that this publication is not a suitable arena for such discussions.

Of course, this is a debate which I can’t resist sticking my oar into.

My immediate response is ‘yes, of course it’s appropriate.’ The opposite point of view is very much a politician’s opinion. During the Second World War, Winston Churchill opined that scientists (and we can assume, by extension, engineers) should be ‘on tap, not on top’. Such a point of view might have been fine during wartime, when every available mind was turned towards defeating a common enemy, but the attitude of ‘now you boffins go off and play with your toys and turn out what we tell you to, and don’t worry yourselves about what we do with them, there’s good chaps’ is not only patronising in the extreme, but underestimates the ability of engineering and engineers to take into account factors other than the application of physical laws to real-world problems.

Not everyone agrees with this opinion. Recently, triggered by the BBC’s excellent docudrama about Richard Feynman’s part in the enquiry following the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, I’ve been reading the great physicist’s books, and it’s interesting to see his take on the Manhattan Project. Feynman was a fairly junior player in the great drama at Los Alamos, but nonetheless spent a lot of time with the senior scientists — all of whom, he points out, were essentially working as engineers. Physics stopped for the duration of the War. Feynman’s point of view is that the physicists should have stopped working on the bomb when it became clear that Germany had been defeated, but they carried on because of their scientific enthusiasm for solving the problem. They became carried away, he said. In the same time period, there’s speculation that the physicist in charge of Germany’s atomic bomb project, Werner Heisenberg, deliberately led his team down blind alleys to prevent the Nazi regime getting its hands on the weapon.

Of course, many would say Feynman was wrong, and the continued development of the bomb, and its subsequent dropping over Hiroshima and Nagasaki shortened the war considerably and saved millions of lives, justifying the horrific effects of the bombs themselves and the decades of tension and uncertainty that followed. Does that imply that scientists and engineers shouldn’t involve themselves in the ethics of technology?

Again, I’d say no. The world of the defence industry and weapons manufacture is a particularly complex one, ethically speaking, and many would rather it wasn’t part of the UK economy. This is a false hope, I think: it’s never been a long way from tool to weapon, and even in the distant past the people who made ploughshares also made swords. But in the final analysis, who understands better what a weapon — or any other piece of technology — is capable of than the engineers who designed and built it? And why shouldn’t they express their views?

We’re constantly told that engineers have to be more entrepreneurial; to understand the drivers of economics and how that affects their work. Why should they not also understand the underlying drivers of sociology and ethics? Why should they be expected to just divorce themselves from any application their work might be put to?

Every engineer who takes a role in the defence sector has to make the decision whether that’s what he or she wants to do, and many are comfortable with it: visit Barrow-in-Furness, Samlesbury or Rosyth, to name but three sites, and you’ll find dedicated, skilled engineers who have no problem at all with building nuclear submarines, fighter aircraft and warships, and are proud of their work.

But to say that it isn’t an engineer’s place to think about the consequences of their work is nonsense. Engineering is all about the consequences of work. It is concerned with the fusion of ideas from a variety of different disciplines and sources to reach a solution. To say that the morality of the uses the technology might be put to should not be a part of that process — and, by extension, that an engineering journal shouldn’t discuss that aspect of the discipline — is ridiculous.

Readers' comments (6)

  • A lot of defence related equipment may well be developed & made but not actually used in earnest .Consider the spin off's associted through defense related technology.
    The argument about the atomic bomb should always be compared with the deaths from conventional bombing of Japan & the potential loss of life from invading the mainland troops as well as civilians ,overall by using the bombs lives were saved.
    Also look at the motor car , how many deaths can be attributed to it's delopment & use.
    A good look at this question is the Zap Gun by Philip K Dick

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  • This is a really difficult ethical judgement to call.

    A great deal of current civilian aerospace technology benefitted from wartime development, for example. On the other hand, there were several times in the last 50 years when the world was only hours away from nuclear armageddon - enabled directly by the outcomes of the Manhattan Project.

    The training required to make sound ethical judgements is no less strenuous than that required to make these potentially devastating technologies. Philosophy is a very different profession from engineering. It is possible to argue that in a representative democracy we all delegate the exercise of making ethical judgements to our elected representatives - in which case they need to be held accountable for the outcomes of those judgments.

    With the best will in the world, an engineer who is not learned in the field of ethics cannot make these judgments any more than a philosopher who is not learned in the field of engineering can make weapons of mass destruction. Yet I cannot convince myself that any of this absolves engineers/scientists from any culpability arising from their works.

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  • I have always been baffled by the term Rules of War. War is an essentially destructive enterprise, and saying it is OK to kill by one means but not by another is a moral perversion. Either everything goes or nothing.
    As for engineers contribution to this, essentially what can be done will be done, and unless there is total consensus on Asimov's 3 laws and the alternative is too costly to make sense(money rules after all) then I don't see this changing.

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  • Those who's livelihoods depend on the conflict, not necessarily on the outcome? are surely the real culprits. Who are they?
    The vicars -man v maker
    The lawyers- man v man
    Military -groups of men v other groups?

    Interestingly these three groups are the only ones who go to work in fancy dress, have elaborate initiation techniques before appointment and 'hide' behind (or hold their commissions from) the royals. QC, Queen's commission, Queen appoints 'p-in-ch's (priest in charge)

    Interesting these same groups have removed themselves completely from having to comply with the pressures of democracy, market forces and capitalism.

    No wonder they want the present situation to continue. It keeps them in employment. As I have opined many times, those who create no wealth (the above) have to think of all sorts of silly rules, reasons and ways to be looked after/paid for by the rest of us, who do! We Engineers more than many.

    Apropos Richard Feynman: I have a copy of the book, salving their academic and professional consciences, that Oppenheimer and the other Los Alamos senior staff insisted (much to the anger of General Groves) be published in AUGUST 1945!! describing most of what they had done and why.

    Hey Ho!

    Our moderator may recall previous posts from me in these areas.
    Mike B

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  • It’s interesting to speculate what would have happened had the Americans not developed & tested the bomb. It is known the Russians had similar intentions to the Americans in capitalising on the German rocket developments and acquired their fair share of German technology and scientists after the war.
    I would suggest it is impossible to prevent progress in all areas of science & technology and once Pandora’s Box has been opened it is only a matter of time before some enterprising state develops it into a useable weapon.
    The question should be what it will take to stop humans trying to kill each other in order to get what they want.
    On a positive note it was announced today almost all societies have seen a reduction in violent crime over the last 10 years, no one is sure why but it may be the dissemination of science and democratic ideals via the internet is having a sobering effect on the more aggressive in society or it could just be the removal of lead from petrol?

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  • Every engineer (to date) is first born a human being. And every human being has an interest in the human future and in whether autonomous weapons are let loose to kill people on their own decision.

    Engineers are also citizens, and as such they have both a right and responsibility to participate in the political decisions that will determine the future.

    As citizens who are particularly well-informed about technology, particularly able to judge claims about technology and to reason about the implications of future technologies which are not yet on display, engineers have a particular authority and a particular responsibility to participate in the political debate and decision process.

    This is true in every nation, but in a democracy it should be above question.

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