By Toby Shannon, Science in Society Officer at the British Science Association.


This May on the Brighton seafront a sight more commonly seen in areas such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan joined visitors to England’s South coast, braving the unseasonably dreadful weather. Passers-by saw the life-size silhouette of a Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle (these are also known as “drones”) – a stubby fuselage and two wide wings sprawling across the promenade, just down the road from Brighton’s iconic pier. However, unlike similar sights in war-torn parts of the world, this wasn’t the shadow cast by a hovering drone nearby but an art installation as part of the 2013 Brighton Festival. Under the Shadow of the Drone by James Bridle makes what can be a distant and unfamiliar technology to many, a visible presence in a public space.

Bridle’s installation is just one example of the growing public discussion and debate about this technology – groups such as the Drone Wars UK, the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and Article 36 campaign internationally to ban lethal applications of robotics in the military. Lush cosmetics has brought their “Welcome to the Drone Age” campaign to the British high street. Numerous articles have appeared in various media expressing the concerns of groups such as these, as well as experts in robotics (and the ethics of robotics) describing the controversy surrounding these topics. The presence of these groups gives an indication of the strong opinions present in this debate – but to what extent are these opinions reflected in the attitudes of the general public?

Sciencewise has commissioned a series of research projects to examine the existing state of public debate and attitudes and values around emerging science and technology areas such as advanced materials, the commercialisation of space and open data. Part of this portfolio of eight reports includes our research into public attitudes towards robotics and autonomous systems, as well as attitudes towards military applications.

Representative opinion polling seems to indicate general support in the UK for military use of robots: Special Eurobarometer 382 “Public Attitudes towards Robots” (2012) indicates that 64% of British adults think that military applications of robotics is a priority area whilst The Public View: British Attitudes to Drone Warfare and Targeted Killing indicates more specifically that 67% of British adults support the statement “[in principle] To what extent, if at all, would you support or oppose the UK Government assisting in a drone strike to kill a known terrorist overseas, no civilian casualties”. Whilst this doesn’t show unanimous support for armed robots, this does however indicate a broadly supportive attitude that is absent from the public debate around this technology with very strong views present on both sides.

An emerging debate within this area is the development of autonomous armed robots – these differ from current military technology in that they are capable of learning, adapting and making independent decisions to achieve their objectives – a level of technology that doesn’t exist currently. This topic has been raised in the House of Lords several times and it has been stated that weapons will always be under human control and that the UK government is not funding any research into developing this autonomous technology.

Whilst autonomous technology is not a reality, at least for now, the current use of robotics for military purposes creates a great deal of debate and controversy with the public, seemingly, taking a moderately supportive position. However, this position requires further analysis – whilst there appears to be apparent overall support, various applications may have more support than others (for example lethal vs. non-lethal). This data is currently absent and may help to resolve the apparent contradiction between the quantitative polling data and the views expressed by the groups described above.

The 2013 Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, on lethal autonomous robots (LARs) calls for NGOs, civil society and human rights groups to not only “urge states to be as transparent as possible regarding their weapons review process” but also to “consider the implications of LARs for human rights and for those in situations of armed conflict, and raise awareness about the issue”.

The lack of nuanced knowledge around public attitudes towards lethal and non-lethal military applications of robotics requires a wider conversation about the current use of this technology and the possible autonomous future that may yet emerge.