The rise of robotic warfare reflects a dangerous disbelief in humanity

Some while ago a friend of mine shared with me that her brother works in the arms industry. One of his assignments was to develop a new weapon which can injure people on a grand scale. The idea behind only injuring people in war or conflict – instead of ‘simply’ killing them – is that the resources of the opponent are then all focused upon saving the life’s of those injured people and in turn this greatly paralyzes the fighting capability of the opponent.

There are many other scientists like the brother of my friend working in the arms industry who work with almost frightening dedication to develop new weapon systems designed to injure or kill. One of the recent developments in the arms industry is to develop robotic weapons as for example the unmanned predator drone which is extensively used by the U.S. in their so called War on Terror. Currently “the US Department of Defense has spent approximately $6 billion annually on the research and development, procurement, operations, and maintenance of unmanned systems for war, and that figure is likely to increase rapidly [in the coming years].”[1] The rise of killer robots has been elaborately discussed in a recently released report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in which it calls for the pre-emptive banning of fully autonomous killer robots. The conclusion of the reports reads in part:

“To comply with international humanitarian law, fully autonomous weapons would need  human qualities that they inherently lack. In particular, such robots would not have the ability to relate to other humans and understand their intentions. They could find it difficult to process complex and evolving situations effectively and could not apply human judgment to deal with subjective tests. In addition, for many the thought of machines making life-and-death decisions previously in the hands of humans shocks the conscience. This inability to meet the core principles of international humanitarian law would erode legal protections and lead fully autonomous weapons to endanger civilians during armed conflict. The development of autonomous technology should be halted before it reaches the point where humans fall completely out of the loop.”[2]

While reading this report by HRW I could not help to stop and think about the words President John F. Kennedy once powerfully declared: “Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man.”[3] However, in contrast the rise of killer robots signals and reflects a dangerous disbelief in humanity. The real underlying problem – beside the fact that the use of killer robots are often in violation with international law – with the existence of these killer robots and the arms industry in general is that we seem to fail to acknowledge that (organized) violence is simply incapable to fundamentally solve the multitude of challenges we face in the 21st century. Even more so because the use of killer robots will not cause a need to enhance our humanistic qualities to show empathy to other people,  and transcend differences. Instead it will merely transform people in fixed digital dots of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. In this regard I am reminded of the words by Buddhist leader and peacebuilder Daisaku Ikeda who stated that: “The use of military force or other forms of hard power can never produce a lasting solution. Even if it may seem possible to suppress a particular threat, what is left behind is an even more deadly legacy of anger and hatred.”[4]

Succumbing to violence reflects a deep fear to revolutionize our own lives

Therefore, it is really time to confront this seemingly uncontrolled culture of violence – as expressed for example by the rise of these killer robots – with more tenacity and indignation. Also it made me reflect on my own society. Although I live in ‘peace’ violence actually surrounds me daily. For example, recently a Dutch referee was kicked to death during a football game by a group of youngsters, violent videogames are immensely popular among youth in the Netherlands and there are many other obvious and less obvious expressions of violence in Dutch society. However, it is important before delving more into the cause of this widespread culture of violence to define what is understood by violence. There are many definitions however for the purposes of this essay I would like to solely refer to the definition as used by the World Health Organization which states that violence is “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against a person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation.”[5] 

This definition does not point out the origin of violence itself but it is important to note that it does state that grave consequences of violence can result in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation. In an essay written by SGI-USA – a worldwide Buddhist organization – after 9-11 titled Violence is Weakness, Prayer is Power the cause of violence is clearly elucidated and for that reason I would like to quote this paragraph in full:

“Violence is a deliberate wish for the destruction of life; it is a symptom of the weak, passive self that seeks to validate its existence through dominating and destroying other lives or things of value to others. Violent people are weak, for they cannot find the inner strength to overcome their insecurity of aloneness and, therefore, must destroy others so that they may feel empowered. Their power, however, is an illusion since it is over others, not from within. Power derived from subjugating others is merely a fancy because it requires others and is dependent on them. On the other hand, power from within is genuine because it is independent and free. Despite their aggressive appearance, violent people are passive at the core of their existence because violence is essentially an easy escape from an overwhelming sense of inner powerlessness and isolation, from the responsibility and effort required to make personal change. It is easier to hurt someone else than get real about oneself. A person who resorts to violence as an escape from his or her real challenge is not the originator of self-willed action and is passive in his or her mental reality. The sense of power felt by violent people, therefore, is actually a sign of their weakness and passivity. Moreover, the sense of power derived from destructive acts is short-lived and addictive; it can only be sustained through further destruction. Compelled by their inner powerlessness, violent people continue to destroy, and when they find nothing more to destroy or find themselves prevented from further acts of destruction, they destroy themselves to escape from themselves, which is the source of their powerlessness. In this sense, violence is not a reaction to external.”[6]

This human centred view on violence made me realize that the current investments in the arms industry and continued global outbursts of violence and war are actually a desperate expression of the serious inability of people to dynamically and daily transform their lives to overcome these feelings of powerlessness and isolation. In my view the failure to wholeheartedly engage in this inner struggle is the root cause of human misery. This is the fundamental issue that needs to be addressed to decisively change the world’s history from war and violence to one of peace and trust in the twenty-first century.

The inherent existence of a dynamic life state of compassion in our lives

However, do we really belief that we can realize a world without war and misery?  Moreover, it is not that difficult to lose our hope and conviction in peace if we look to the continued emergence of violence and war on our planet at the start of this century. On the other hand we cannot deny that we have seen a tremendous change in human consciousness after the horrors of the Second World War. This is clearly embodied by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – adopted on the 10th of December 1948.  It reflects the universal conviction of humanity that all life is precious and needs to be protected by these fundamental rights that are stated in this declaration.

In a sense I feel this declaration was written with the underlying urgency of the drafters to strengthen the human quality of compassion. Also it is interesting to note that in Japanese the word compassion is written with the characters jihi. “The first character ji is a translation of the Sanskrit work maitri, meaning ‘to give happiness.’ The second hi comes from the Sanskrit karuna meaning ‘to remove suffering.’ Taken together they describe the function of relieving living beings of suffering and giving them happiness.”[7] In that sense the meaning of this declaration has not lost its meaning in the 21st century in the least.

I firmly believe that everyone possesses an inherent and dynamic life state filled with compassion. There are many examples in history of ordinary people who have manifested such a life state in their lives without succumbing to violence when there were confronted with it. The current crisis of the world and humanity is therefore in my opinion a crisis surrounding the lack of education provided at all levels. As Zachary Kaufman – co-founder of the first public library in Rwanda – stated: “Ignorance fuels violence.” Ignorance of the existence of this life state and equally important the recognition of this life state of compassion in other peoples life has led people to commit the most horrible atrocities.

Confronting and overcoming ignorance through education 

Humanistic education holds therefore the promise and the key for establishing a culture of peace in the 21st century. The word “education” is derived from the Latin “educare” which literally means “to draw forth from.” But what is it that education aims to draw forth? Nowadays, on the contrary, educational endeavours generally seem to be aimed to imprint students with knowledge; it is like a factory of students who “move down the assembly line, where we install math on them, and install reading, and science, and then we measure their learning at the end of the year, to make sure they all meet the standards, that they all know the same things.”[8] But could this be the true purpose of education?

In my view the true purpose of education is to enable students to draw forth their unlimited potential to transform or in other words revolutionize their lives on a daily basis. When we belief and experience that our life is never static, we start to understand that an “enemy” can change into a friend, that conflict can give rise to harmony instead of violence and that we can transform misery into happiness. In that sense education makes us free on the most fundamental level as a human being. Moreover, as Daisaku Ikeda states: “Education liberates people from prejudice. It frees the human heart from its violent passions.”[9]

From this perspective education holds the key to decisively change the 21st century into one of global and lasting peace. Moreover, we should deeply understand that the rise of robotic warfare and violence in general is an expression of our disbelief in humanity’s inherent potential to overcome our violent tendencies through wisdom, compassion and courage. Thus, there is no other way then to continuously revolutionize our own life by courageously drawing forth every day this life state of compassion. Dante Alighieri once declared: “If the world today has gone astray, the cause lies in yourselves and only there!”[10]


[1] Losing Humanity report by Human Rights Watch

[2] Ibid.

[3] John F. Kennedy, speech at The American University, Washington, D.C., June 10, 1963

[4] Daisaku Ikeda, For a Denuclearised Middle East, IPS News Agency (2012)

[10] Daisaku Ikeda, Dante Alighieri – In Tribute to the Century of Youth

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