McCain Conference 2010

I attended the McCain Conference held at the Naval Academy April 22 and 23. The theme for this year’s conference was New Warriors and New Weapons: The Ethical Ramifications of Emerging Military Technologies. This conference was a real eye opener – it should be no surprise that technology is not only transforming the business world, but also dramatically transforming the way the military and other national security forces confront their enemies. And just like in business, these technological developments are creating new and often unforeseen ethical challenges.

The conference included a who’s who of thinkers currently involved in the discussion of finding reasonable boundaries and guidelines for the use of new technologies and capabilities. These include the rapidly growing field of robotics and other ‘unmanned’ military vehicles and weapon systems, use of a wide variety of non- and low-lethality weapons, use of human performance enhancements to include drugs and implants, and the growing concerns about cyber-warfare. New technologies are evolving exponentially according to Moore’s law, and leaders are confronting new and unforeseen ethical challenges almost every day.

Dr Peter W. Singer, author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, pointed out that people who manufactured and purchased horseless carriages in 1909 could barely foresee how the automobile would transform human society, and he noted that Bill Gates believes that we are today with robotics where we were with the computer in early 1980’s. The degree to which these technologies will change warfare, business, and the way we live cannot be over-estimated, and the second and third order effects are almost impossible to foresee. The ethical challenges that grow out of these transformations will be significant.

This was a fascinating conference, and it was inspiring and intellectually stimulating to see the degree to which scientists, philosophers, and lawyers are struggling to foresee and keep up with the leadership and ethical challenges that are emerging from the rapid pace of technological change.

To give you an idea of the level of the discussion, in addition to Dr Peter Singer, some of the other conference speakers and books they have recently published include:
Dr Martin Libiki; Cyberdeterrence and Cyberwar
Dr Ron Arkin; Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots
Dr Max Mehlman; The Price of Perfection: Individualism and Society in the Era of Biomedical Enhancement
Dr Joel Garreau; Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies – and what it means to be Human
Dr Patrick Lin Ethics of Human Enhancement: 25 Questions and Answers.
David Koplow; Non-Lethal Weapons: The Law and Policy of Revolutionary Technologies for the Miltiary and Law Enforcement
Duncan Hollis; New Tools, New Rules: International Law and Information Operations.

3 thoughts on “McCain Conference 2010

  1. It was indeed a fascinating conference. It was the first time I’d been to the McCain Conference and really the first time I’d been to a conference focused on ethics. It was a real eye opener.I have what I consider, a pretty good grasp on philosophical and ethical thinking, but I have to say I was unprepared for the questions which came up during the conference. Things I never could have considered.I’m grateful I had the opportunity to go and dip my foot in the deep end of the pool. I now have a newfound appreciation for the discipline of technology ethics.


  2. Buck – this was the deep end of the pool – I just wish there had been more opportunities to bang around ideas at our discussion tables. There were some really sharp people there who I wish I could have talked more to and heard more from. That was the best of the McCain conferences I've been to. I'll look forward to the next one. Bob


  3. Agreed – it was a great conference, but it was also the deep end of the pool. And there were other technologies not covered much (e.g., nanotechnology and neuroscience), so it gets deeper still!I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to meet everyone there, but I was impressed by the patience and stamina of the service folks in grappling with these difficult issues that were new to them. There were many thoughtful questions, and I hope these issues continue to get attention by decisionmakers and educators.By the way, the human-enhancement report (NSF, 2009) on which my talk was based is here: the military robots report (DoD/ONR, 2008) that was mentioned is here: you all next time!


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