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War by Algorithm: Giambattista Vico and Ethics of War in the Techno-Logical Era


In an era where humans are increasingly being replaced or augmented by technological innovation, how might the humanist tradition offer us guiding questions for ethics of war today? My talk will explore the U.S. discourse of how improved battlefield technology is believed to make Western war an inherently more ethical space that eases the liberal conscience in killing. Drawing on the logics and practices of U.S. war making, my talk will address three phases of the transition from an ethics of practical judgment and due care to a computational techno-ethics of war. First, it traces the rise of smart bombs alongside collateral damage estimation software. Second, I examine the machine-learning processes that constructs ‘legitimate targets’ in US drone strikes via heterogeneous correlations of SIM card metadata. Third, I survey the consequences of a quantified global battlefield and the improbability of ‘meaningful human control’ over artificially intelligent ‘killer robots’. War by algorithm ultimately removes us from the act of killing while proffering a more ethical ‘science of warfare’. These practices enable decision-makers to tick the ethical box of due care with technology that is believed to be objective and neutral, yet in reality, has simply buried bias deep within the algorithmic code. Not only do these technologies of war and big data shape our capacity to think ethically, but fundamentally call us to reassess how complex ethico-political dilemmas of war could be replaced by computation. What is at stake is the erosion of effective constraints on the use of lethal force because this techno-rationalization of a quantified risk assessment has supplanted ethical decision-making, the site of the body, and emotions in contemporary conflict. Ultimately, I will argue that the science of humanity of Giambattista Vico, allows us to rethink algorithmic epistemologies of war in novel ways that bring the human back to the forefront of ethical decision-making in the 21st Century.

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