Understanding 'The Loop': Regulating the Next Generation of War Machines

62 Pages Posted: 20 Apr 2012 Last revised: 4 Oct 2012

Date Written: May 1, 2012


The United States is in the midst of a national debate about the role drone aircraft should play in warfare abroad and law enforcement at home. But contemporary drones are merely the “Model T” of robot technology. Today, humans are still very much “in the loop”: humans decide when to launch a drone, where it should fly, and whether it should take action against a suspect. But as drones develop greater autonomy, humans will increasingly be out of the loop. Human operators will not be necessary to decide when a drone (or perhaps a swarm of microscopic drones) takes off, where it goes, how it acts, what it looks for, and when it strikes. In the language of engineers, tomorrow’s drones are expected to leap from “automation” to true “autonomy.”

Regulations for today’s drones must be crafted with an eye towards tomorrow’s technologies. Yet today’s debates about humans and “the loop” rely on language too imprecise to successfully analyze the relevant differences between drones and predecessor technologies. Confusion pervades discussions about when an advanced technological system is autonomous and what the implications of autonomy might be.

We argue that language useful to the policymaking process has already been developed in the same places as drones themselves — research and engineering laboratories around the country and abroad. We introduce this vocabulary here to explain how tomorrow’s drones will differ from today’s, outline the issues apt to follow, and suggest possible approaches to regulation. This paper equips policymakers to develop thoughtful rules built on a basic understanding of how drones actually work. This understanding is critical. As drone expert Peter Singer notes, the machines’ “intelligence and autonomy is growing. . . . The law’s not ready for all this.”

Autonomy is no longer solely a feature of humans. Whether it is a desirable quality for machines to have will be one of the most important public policy debates of the next generation.

Keywords: OODA, machines, decision-making, drones, UAV, UAS, autonomy, automation, aerial, nanodrones, robots, war, war machines, ethics, robot ethics, philosophy, morality, Predator, Reaper, Global Hawk, military, LOAC, Law of Armed Conflict, discrimination, proportionality, necessity, humanity

JEL Classification: C80, D7, D70, D8, D80, D81, K33, N40, O33, O38, O39

Suggested Citation

Marra, William and McNeil, Sonia, Understanding 'The Loop': Regulating the Next Generation of War Machines (May 1, 2012). Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Vol. 36, No. 3, 2013, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2043131 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2043131

William Marra

Harvard Law School ( email )

Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Sonia McNeil (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1875 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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