The Ethics of Non-Lethal Weapons: Stephen Coleman at TEDxCanberra (Transcript)

What I want to talk to you about today is some of the problems that the military of the Western world — Australia, United States, the UK and so on — face in some of the deployments that they’re dealing with in the modern world at this time. If you think about the sorts of things we’ve sent Australian military personnel to in recent years, we’ve got obvious things like Iraq and Afghanistan, but you’ve also got things like East Timor and the Solomon Islands, and so on. And a lot of these deployments that we’re sending military personnel to these days aren’t traditional wars.

In fact, a lot of the jobs we’re asking military personnel to do in those situations are ones that, in their own countries — Australia, the US and so on — would actually be done by police officers. So there’s a bunch of problems that come up for military personnel in these situations, because they’re doing things they haven’t really been trained for. And they’re doing things that those who do them in their own countries are trained very differently for and equipped very differently for.

Now, there’s a bunch of reasons why we send military personnel, rather than police, to do these jobs. If Australia had to send 1,000 people tomorrow to West Papua, for example, we don’t have 1,000 police officers hanging around that could go tomorrow, and we do have 1,000 soldiers that could go. So when we have to send someone, we send the military — they’re there, they’re available, and heck, they’re used to going off and doing these things and living by themselves and not having all this extra support. So they are able to do it in that sense. But they aren’t trained the same way police officers are, and they’re certainly not equipped the way police officers are, so this has raised a bunch of problems for them when dealing with these issues.

One particular thing that’s come up that I am especially interested in, is the question of whether, when we’re sending military personnel to do these sorts of jobs, we ought to be equipping them differently; and in particular, whether we ought to be giving them access to some of the nonlethal weapons that police have. Since they’re doing some of the same jobs, maybe they should have some of those things. And there’s a range of places you’d think those things would be really useful. For example, when you’ve got military checkpoints.

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If people are approaching these checkpoints and the military personnel are unsure if this person’s hostile or not, say this person approaching here, and they say, “Is this a suicide bomber or not? Is something hidden under their clothes? What’s going to happen?” They don’t know if the person is hostile or not. If the person doesn’t follow directions, they may end up shooting them, and then find out afterwards either, yes, we shot the right person, or, no, this was just an innocent person who didn’t understand what was going on.

So if they had nonlethal weapons, then they would say, “We can use them in that sort of situation. If we shoot someone who wasn’t hostile, at least we haven’t killed them.” Another situation: this photo is from one of the missions in the Balkans in the late 1990s. This situation is a little bit different, where maybe they know someone is hostile; they’ve got someone shooting at them or doing something else that’s clearly hostile, throwing rocks, whatever. But if they respond, there’s a range of other people around who are innocent people, who might also get hurt. It’d be collateral damage that the military often doesn’t want to talk about.

So again, they’d say, “With access to nonlethal weapons, if we’ve got someone we know is hostile, we can do something to deal with them, and know that if we hit anyone else, at least we’re not going to kill them.” Another suggestion has been, since we’re putting so many robots in the field, we can see the time coming where they’re actually going to send robots out in the field that are autonomous. They’ll make their own decisions about who to shoot and who not to shoot, without a human in the loop.

So the suggestion is, if we’re going to send robots out and allow them to do this, maybe it would be a good idea if they were armed with nonlethal weapons, so if the robot makes a bad decision and shoots the wrong person, again, they haven’t actually killed them.

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Now, there’s a whole range of different sorts of nonlethal weapons, some of which are available now, some of which they’re developing. You’ve got traditional things like pepper spray, OC spray up at the top there, or Tasers over here. The one on the top right here is actually a dazzling laser, intended to just blind the person momentarily and disorient them. You’ve got nonlethal shotgun rounds that contain rubber pellets instead of the traditional metal ones. And this one in the middle here, the large truck, is called the Active Denial System, something the US military is working on at the moment. It’s essentially a big microwave transmitter. It’s sort of your classic idea of a heat ray. It goes out to a really long distance, compared to any of these other sorts of things.

Anybody who is hit with this feels a sudden burst of heat, and just wants to get out of the way. It is a lot more sophisticated than a microwave oven, but it basically is boiling the water molecules in the very surface level of your skin. So you feel this massive heat, and you go, “I want to get out of the way.” And they think this will be really useful in places where we need to clear a crowd out of a particular area, if the crowd is being hostile. If we need to keep people away from a particular place, we can do that with these sorts of things.

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