This is a guest post. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE.
Last week, the Dallas police killed a suspected gunman with a bomb-delivering robot. It was a desperate measure for desperate times: five law enforcement officers were killed and several more wounded before the shooter was finally cornered.
Of course, the shooter needed to be stopped; preventing further murder and mayhem is always a priority. But the method, a robot bomb, was so unorthodox that it raises many ethical and policy questions, if not also legal ones. Let’s look at some.
Direct effects on society
If deadly force was justified, does the method matter? It might. On one hand, you might think that killing is killing, but imagine if the robot had thrown acid at the suspect, or shot poisoned darts, or used a flamethrower, or stabbed him to death. Would that change things? If so, then the method matters to you, and we’re just haggling over the line.
Law enforcement in America has very little history of throwing bombs or exploding grenades at suspects. It does use nonlethal grenades, such as flash-bang, smoke, and tear-gas types, but those aren’t designed or intended to kill. So, what happened in Dallas was largely an untested (until now) use-case for explosive weapons in law enforcement.
Some ways to kill people are judged by our society to be inhumane. We don’t draw and quarter people anymore or perform executions in other cruel and unusual ways. In warfare, many weapons are prohibited under international humanitarian law, including poison, chemical weapons, glass bullets, serrated bayonets, and others. A movement is growing to preemptively ban lethal autonomous weapons systems, or “killer robots.”
While this is not yet an argument against the use of explosive weapons in law enforcement, it is very much an open question whether we should go down that road. Death by bombing is much more characteristic of bloodthirsty dictatorships, such as North Korea, not civilized society.
Another direct effect of this precedent is that it may erode what little trust exists between police negotiators and criminal suspects. The robot used in Dallas was similar to the kinds used in hostage and other dangerous situations to deliver items, such as food and mobile phones for communications; these robots help to peacefully resolve a crisis in many cases.