Reith, Russell, and the Robots: AI, Warfare, and Shaping the Debate




AI, conflict, cyber politics, discourse analysis


On December 8th, 2021, Professor Stuart Russell delivered the second of that year’s Reith Lectures, presented under the banner title ‘Living With Artificial Intelligence’. This specific talk dealt with ‘The Future Role of AI in Warfare’, and in this paper I propose a reading of Russell’s address which both summarises and critiques his argument and stance, to determine what, if anything, can be taken from his position as effectively a public philosopher and applied in the realm of modern warfare, where ethical questions are taken from the seminar room and enacted in battlespace. The Reith lectures occupy a unique place in public discourse; given each year by a leading figure in the field under discussion, they help to shape opinion and debate. In considering the role of AI, and in particular its deployment in combat, there is undoubtedly a need for multi- and transdisciplinary thought, but the choice of Russell as the lecturer is not unproblematic. He is undoubtedly an expert in the field of AI, but he has no direct experience of working with the military, and is clearly not a neutral witness. He has been a leading figure in the campaign to ban research into autonomous weapon systems, and was closely involved in the production of Slaughterbots, a short film which presents a nightmare vision of swarming drones as agents of political repression. There are deep and serious questions to be asked about the role of AI in warfare, but Russell’s position that we must stop all research in the field is arguably naïve. Our adversaries will surely not be as punctilious. At the heart of the debate lie complex issues concerning human agency and control (and ‘control’ lies at the etymological root of ‘cyber’); this paper will use Russell’s lecture as a starting point for the consideration of how we might develop an ethical doctrine for the use of AI, resting on the idea of human-machine teaming. It will, in short, argue for a cybernetic solution to the problems of cyber warfare.