Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

For anyone who’s played at least 5 minutes of the immensely popular PC video game StarCraft, the very idea of a photon cannon most likely makes you grin with tactical delight. For my less nerdy readers, let me illustrate for you what a photon cannon is exactly. In the not so distant video game future, mankind has fallen victim to two different alien invasions. The immeasurably more intelligent Protoss species possesses, within its arsenal, an automated defense cannon (the gold and blue circular structures pictured to the right) fully equipped with an AI hell-bent on firing upon charging enemy units (in red) without the need for its creator to pull the proverbial trigger or designate alien friend from human foe. Protoss commanders need not supervise the autonomous cannons which are commonly placed among their flanks, at critical choke points, and around pivotal resource nodes, and can dedicate precious attention, resources, and mouse clicks elsewhere on the battlefield.

I understand that I am pandering to an impossibly small cross section of readers who are both ardent Foreign Policy readers and avid video gamers, so let me move on before I digress further the depths of StarCraft fandom…

(I preface the remainder of this article by saying that I am by no means an engineer, soldier, mechanic, mathematician, scientist, nor a robot, and the basis of my arguments below revolve around what I regard as an above average understanding of the limits of computer programing and the things more learned people than I call “algorithms”) Chances are if you have a pulse (and/or cable TV) you’ve probably seen [trailers for] movies such as Terminator, Eagle Eye, I,Robot, and Stealth over the last decade. Quickly becoming the action movie flavor of the decade, “robot-gone-wrong” thrillers have stolen Hollywood’s heart from the previous top dog: the “uncontrollable disease/zombie outbreak” genre. I, more than most, find RGW scenarios terrifying, primarily due to the logical feasibility and exponential advancement of technology with each passing year. Despite my (and Hollywood’s) hangups, it’s not to say that such technology should be abandoned outright. I fully endorse the development and implementation of automated weapon systems, so long as they come complete with government oversight and strict scientific and mechanical parameters.

Many critics claim that automated weapon systems lack the “human intuition” to differentiate an enemy from a bystander during murky situations such as the ‘woman running after her children who happen to be playing with toy guns’ scenario outlined in the source article. Such claims seem to naively overlook the unprecedented capabilities of technology in the modern era. If Johnny Six Pack can go to a local Walmart, purchase an XBox 360 Kinect video game system for a few hundred dollars, and play Dance Central 3 – a video game with the amazing ability to detect even the most nuanced dance move and translate them into a correspondingly dancing avatar on your screen – then it should be a relative jaunt in the part to develop an autonomous AI capable of determining a friend from a foe on several bases. Aside from the “threat algorithm” programmed into weapons systems that would make instantaneous judgements based on a target’s height, weight, size, or heat signature, I don’t believe it would be very difficult to also implement the ability to identify potentially harmful silhouettes possessing weapon-shaped outlines (this vs. this, for instance), genuine fear/anger demonstrated by distinct facial recognition, or aggressive body language. Unless our enemies are planning to utilize swarms of armed, facially-neutral, and casually-demeanored children/little people, I rest assured that military-grade technology would be able to distinguish between maliciously-armed fighters and innocently-meandering bystanders.

Similarly, different security situations call for different security protocols. Whereas most fear that autonomous robots will eventually roam desolate city streets scanning for life forms to indiscriminately destroy in Schwarzennegerian fashion, evidence indicates that most modern applications for autonomous robotic systems are in border patrol/perimeter securing environments (such as South Korea’s use of the SGR-1 in the DMZ). Assuming that securing borders will be the most prevalent use of robotic systems in the near future, the potential to fire on innocent civilians becomes minimized as computer-generated lines in the sand are easily deemed “crossed” or “uncrossed”. Put another way, the algorithm used to dictate robotic behavior becomes much simpler in these scenarios: shoot anything that crosses the line in an unauthorized fashion, and spare all else.

The source author’s argument that robotic defense systems behave inhumanely is both cliche and hypocritical in an analytical sense. Deciding to illegally cross a border or fire upon security forces inherently violates the most basic and primordial (aka- “humane”) tenets of the social contract amongst individuals according to scholars such as John Locke. By challenging the freedom and security of fellow countrymen in crossing a border illegally or taking up arms against government personnel, perpetrators forsake their right to humane treatment by nature of acting inhumanely themselves. In assuming that robotic systems behave properly in an ethical sense, their implementation becomes a simple matter of efficiency and propensity to save lives during otherwise human assignments. With proper oversight, development, and implementation in appropriate field assignments, I believe that we may see efficient, dependable, and accurate robotic weapons systems in our lifetime… and that’s no fantasy.



As if American exceptionalism and maverickism (Microsoft spellcheck anyone?) could not swell any larger, Washington recently removed the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK) from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Despite persistent condemnation of organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah who, might I add, have received legislative votes of confidence from their respective Palestinian and Lebanese populations at one point or another, the MEK has become an interesting exception to the rule: a former terrorist organization with American, Iranian, and Kurdish blood on its hands turned U.S.-approved champion of regime change and democratic values.

To provide some background information, the MEK is an assembly of revolutionary and militant Iranian forces dedicated to the overthrow of the current regime in Tehran. The MEK has a checkered past characterized by flip flopping allegiances with both the Ayatollah and Washington over the past 50 years. Whereas the MEK initially aligned itself with Ayatollah Khomeini during the 1979 Revolution due to their shared disdain for Shah-begotten western liberal interests, they soon found themselves at odds with the Ayatollah due to the inherent power vacuum that a lack of political opposition naturally foments. Seeking political refuge in Iraq during the early 80’s, the MEK proved to be a considerable thorn in Tehran’s side while fighting tooth and nail on behalf of Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War. Fast forward to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, MEK encampments near Fallujah were prime bombing targets for US forces due to their large caches of Iraqi-supplied weaponry and residual allegiance to the Saddam regime.  The MEK quickly brokered a ceasefire/surrender with U.S. forces, which bred natural criticism within Washington for Bush’s negotiations with a then-terrorist organization. More recently, and perhaps most importantly, the MEK has proven a valuable source of intelligence for U.S. security officials seeking detailed information about Iranian nuclear developments.

The MEK’s removal from terrorist organization list creates several moral dilemmas for the U.S. State Department and for U.S. national security in general.  For starters, the MEK’s history is replete with violent acts against Iranians, Kurds, and Americans alike. By sweeping these violations under the proverbial rug, the U.S. portrays itself as a malleable player of “favorites” amongst the who’s who of unsavory global non-state actors (NSA’s), further undermining our reputation around the world. Simultaneously, Hamas and Hezbollah continue to be vilified in mainstream American rhetoric (and rightfully so), despite being legitimate members of their respective nation’s[1] majority coalitions. How, then, can the U.S. so easily forgive an organization that has been credited with the deaths of not only 6 Americans in the mid-1970s, but also countless Iranian countrymen and “innocent” Kurdish Iraqis[2]? It’s simple: because the U.S. has been utilizing groups such as the MEK for decades against almost every adversary we’ve had since the turn of the 20th century.

Before we jump to a “Bush is to blame” conclusion with regard to the alleged funding and training of MEK forces in the mid-2000’s (which is a moot point anyway given the overwhelmingly bipartisan support for their removal from the list), let’s scroll down U.S. foreign policy’s Facebook Timeline a bit- which I hear they too are having a hard time adjusting to. Beginning with JFK’s infamous Bay of Pigs invasion, we find that Presidents of both parties have been equipping and training rogue NSA’s on behalf of U.S. national security prerogatives for generations. Shocking, I know, but America’s Democratic (with a capital “D”) poster child also utilized disgruntled foreign nationals as instruments of [ultimately disastrous] U.S. foreign policy. The same can be said of JFK’s CIA funding of Dominican rebels and their assassination plot against the entrenched dictator Rafael “The Goat” Trujillo, Reagan’s clandestine funding of the Contras in Nicaragua, and Bush Jr.’s use of indigenous Tajiks in Northern Afghanistan as spotters and guides during the initial days of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

According to this trend, President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s removal of the MEK from the foreign terrorist organization list should come as no surprise as Iran blossoms into a greater and greater threat with each passing spin of its centrifuges.  As long as the MEK provides credible intelligence regarding Iranian nuclear developments, as long as the MEK continues to relentlessly lobby our politicians, and as long as figures like former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, former National Security Advisers, and former UN Ambassadors continue to endorse the MEK’s removal from the list, the U.S. will continue the tradition of selective favoritism towards organizations as historically distasteful as the People’s Mujahedin of Iran.


[1] I use “nation” liberally in terms of defining the Palestinian state.

[2] “Take the Kurds under your tanks, and save your bullets for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards” – Maryam Rajavi, President-elect of the NCRI: MEK’s political manifestation (pictured above with former NY Mayor Rudy Giuliani)

After seeing a poster in a DC metro station portraying the infamous Wikileaks whistleblower as a “hero”, I’ve taken a particular interest in the respective stories of Pvt. Bradley Manning (the Wikileaks source) and Maj. Nidal Hasan (the Fort Hood shooter). Both “men*” are awaiting trial this fall for their various crimes, and several interesting and ethical dilemmas are sure to follow with the respective judgments. After just a few hours of research, admittedly via each person’s official Wikipedia page (and I would encourage you to do the same after reading this), I’m astounded by the biographies of these two men with whom our armed services invested so much time and treasure. Both men demonstrated very objectionable behavior months before their offenses, not to mention overt conflicts of interest and deep moral unwillingness to perform the tasks assigned of them. The fact that each individual not only had access to top secret and militaristically sensitive material, but were often times responsible for the mental health and security of fellow soldiers, is absurd. Granted these case studies are several years in the past, it begs the question of just how much oversight and accountability our armed services have over their troops? How could repeated violations of standard professional protocol, Osama-esque decrees, and a proverbial laundry list of documented mental instability go unaddressed for so long? In my opinion, greater leeway needs to be given to our armed services to classify soldiers, sailors, pilots, and marines as unfit for duty due to intangible criteria such as perceived religious conflict of interest and/or mental instability attributed to conditions such as gender disorder, social anxiety, or political inclination. Additionally, our services must be more vigilant in sniffing out suspicious troops in their ranks, and must have the gall to dismiss said troops despite the technical, linguistic, or physical talents they offer.

I leave you with a few direct quotes from both Manning and Hasan, all of which were taken from conversations, emails, and chat rooms with their respective coworkers, friends, and supervisors prior to their heinous offenses. I hope their words not only clarify the discussion, but set the precedent as to whether or not they should be considered traitors or terrorists in their upcoming trials:

–          “[the DOD] should allow Muslim Soldiers the option of being released as “Conscientious objectors” to increase troop morale and decrease adverse events”

–          “the Muslims should stand up and fight against the aggressor”, referring to the US

–          People should “strap bombs on themselves and go into Times Square.”

–          “and little does anyone know, but among this “visible” mess, there’s the mess i created that no-one knows about yet […]”

–          “hypothetical question: if you had free reign over classified networks for long periods of time … say, 8–9 months … and you saw incredible things, awful things … things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC … what would you do? […]”

–          “and … its important that it gets out … i feel, for some bizarre reason”

–          “i’ve totally lost my mind … i make no sense … the CPU is not made for this motherboard … […]”


*I say “men” above due to Manning’s self-admitted anxiety of being “plastered all over the world press… as a boy”.