Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War

  • Published

Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War by Paul Scharre. W. W. Norton & Company, 2018, 446 pp.

Army of None sets out to explore the following questions: Given rapid advancement in artificial intelligence (AI) technology, should robots be allowed to make life-or-death decisions? To what degree should humans be involved in the decision-making process? Should we, or could we, ban autonomous weapons? Author Paul Scharre is a former US Army Ranger and currently the director of the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. While working for the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2008 to 2013, he directly influenced US defense policy on autonomous weapons by leading the DOD working group that drafted DOD Directive 3000.09, Autonomy in Weapon Systems.

Scharre’s apparent goal in writing Army of None is to open a dialogue on the use of autonomous weapons. To begin an informed conversation, however, he must first define “autonomy,” which is more troublesome than it appears. The differences between automatic, automated, and autonomous systems are obscure and difficult for even experts to understand, but Scharre gives tangible examples from his time as a Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan that make the tricky distinctions clear to the layman reader. Scharre also aids the reader by boiling down complicated explanations into simple pictures before he moves on to the next topic, enabling even the most inexperienced reader to grasp concepts like supervised autonomous weapons systems.

To continue building the reader’s mental model of autonomous weapons, Scharre points out that the idea of such weapons is not new. The German G7e/T4 Falcon torpedo saw combat in 1943, and it used a passive acoustic homing seeker to hunt down its prey. Over the next several decades, countries around the world would develop increasingly more capable weapons, resulting in many of the weapon systems we use today. Scharre devotes several chapters to portraying the land-based Patriot missile system and the ship-based Aegis combat system. He interviews subject matter experts in the DOD and outlines the capabilities and risks that each system brings to the fight. Careful to avoid bias, Scharre balances praising the effectiveness of the autonomy to engage targets with real-world examples of fratricide and opens discussion on best practices when using such powerful autonomous weapons.

After defining autonomy and giving a brief background on its past and current use in war fighting, Scharre spends the majority of the book seeking answers to whether or not we should entrust life-or-death decisions to machines and to what degree. He does this by interviewing a diverse selection of industry experts and offering their views and perceived courses of action, allowing readers to form their own opinions on the subject. Those interviewed range from former US deputy secretary of defense Bob Work, to program managers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), to private companies developing commercial applications of AI. To further encourage self-reflection in the reader, Scharre refrains from stating his personal stance until the conclusion, and even then he admits that there is no black-and-white answer. Instead, he concludes that “states must come together to develop an understanding of which uses of autonomy are appropriate and which go too far and surrender human judgment where it is needed in war.”

While many fundamentals of war fighting are timeless, the technology we use to fight is ever evolving. A shift in focus toward peer-to-peer conflict forces our Department of Defense to address the hairy questions Scharre asks. Whether or not artificial intelligence will be used on the battlefield is not the question to be asking. Rather, our decision makers must continue to ask how autonomous weapons will be used in future conflict without compromising the moral high ground the world expects the American military to hold. Army of None is a must-read for all who find themselves working with or around autonomous systems. It is better for us as a nation to debate the potential uses of autonomous weapons now in peacetime instead of leaving ourselves to make quick decisions during the next conflict.

1st Lt Nathaniel Lewis, USAF


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."