In recent weeks, I have been reflecting on the relationship between the specific international prohibition covering toxins and disease – and the idea of biologically inspired weapon systems (which generally speaking are not prohibited under international law). Such relationships are not unconsidered- indeed a 2010 report from the Center for Technology and National Security Policy reviewed many of the issues below. However, it strikes me that very specific perspectives are currently dominating ethical and legal discourses on these matters- particularly in relation to cutting edge innovation. As is noted in the foreword to this report:
‘Despite various treaties and protocols, offensive biological weapons use
has continued to this day, with the anthrax attacks of 2001 being the most
recent incident. Such activity has led to a strong defensive program, with
medical science developing numerous countermeasures that have benefited
both civilian and military populations.’
‘But that is the “old” biological warfare. Covert programs for the
development of novel weapons will advance; likewise, the development of
countermeasures will also continue.’
Further to this the report opens up the study of what it terms ‘the new face of biological warfare‘- which includes biologically based or inspired materials for military technologies, novel portable power sources, manufacturing technologies, sensors, and technologies which can heal, enhance and conceal war-fighters.
But what about biologically inspired weapon systems? Surely this is also part of the ‘new face’ of biological warfare, it is certainly something DARPA has shown interest in – do these systems attract special ethical considerations, and how do these relate to the prohibition against poisons and disease?
Three areas I think could merit particular discussion, which for the time being I am grouping around the idea of targeting (such as biologically inspired autonomous weapon systems), delivery ( such as insect inspired or algorithm based swarm technology) and payload (synthetic agents). It is clear the latter is prohibited under the BWC and CWC- however, this is not the case for the first two. It is also apparent that in thinking about weapons in terms of targeting, delivery and payload, I may also be bracketing out a whole other range of biologically inspired weapon systems.
I guess there are a few key questions that would require unpacking:
- In what senses can technologies be ‘biologically inspired’
- What aspects of the framing of technology contributes to its ethical status. ( i.e relationship with nature,relationship with existing systems of order, mode of use and effects)
Thoughts very welcome.
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