In a well-attended lunchtime side event yesterday (don’t go to UN meetings for the free food; plastic-wrapped sandwiches and water or pop were the offerings, and these quickly disappeared at the hands of the horde of hungry delegates), Canadian robotics entrepreneur Ryan Gariepy spoke about why his company, Clearpath Robotics, declared last year that it does not and will not produce killer robots. With about eighty employees, Clearpath is a young, aggressive developer of autonomous ground and maritime vehicle systems, putting about equal emphasis on hardware and software. The company’s name reflects its original goal of developing mine-clearing robots, and Clearpath is by no means allergic to military robotics in general; its client list includes “various militaries worldwide” and major military contractors. Nevertheless, in a statement released in August 2014, Gariepy, as co-founder and Chief Technology Officer, wrote, “To the people against killer robots: we support you.... Clearpath Robotics believes that the development of killer robots is unwise, unethical, and should be banned on an international scale.”
|Ryan Gariepy’s presentation|
Gariepy believes in a “robotics revolution” that can be purely benevolent: “After all, the development of killer robots isn’t a necessary step on the road to self-driving cars, robot caregivers, safer manufacturing plants, or any of the other multitudes of ways autonomous robots can make our lives better.” I and, I suspect, many readers of this blog have some questions about what kind of care robots will be able to give, and whether manufacturing plants are going to be “safer” or just not have people working in them at all (and why those people shouldn’t then be doing the caregiving). But it’s clear that we are no longer living in the military spin-off economy of the Cold War era; the flow of technology from military R&D to civilian application has largely reversed. This makes it doubtful that Clearpath really has “more to lose” than it has to gain from the free publicity that came with its declaration, and Gariepy admits it has actually helped him to recruit top-notch engineers who would rather work with a clear conscience.
In contrast with those who find they must wrestle with complexity and nuance in their quest for the meaning of autonomy (see my previous post), Gariepy’s statement took a pretty straightforward approach to defining what he was talking about: “systems where a human does not make the final decision for a machine to take a potentially lethal action.” That’s the no-go, but otherwise, he pledged that “we will continue to support our military clients and provide them with autonomous systems — especially in areas with direct civilian applications such as logistics, reconnaissance, and search and rescue.”
|Ryan Gariepy, on Lake Geneva|
Gariepy threw up his hands at such questions and said, “I don’t want to think about all that. I have a business to run." And in fairness, he is probably the only person who was sitting in the plenary sessions with his laptop open, coding. Referring to the community with nothing else to do than brainstorm and debate about the fine print of a killer-robot ban, he added, "You guys think about it, and tell me what to do.”
One of the advantages of being a private entrepreneur, he explained, is not having to make policy to govern such cases in advance. “I can change my mind, or decide as the situation arises.” Unless, that is, there is a law about the matter, and Gariepy wants a law. So he doesn’t have to think about all that.
(Edit: Expanded the penultimate paragraph, to add more detail.)