The US Office of Naval Research (ONR) has offered a $7.5m grant to researchers from universities including Tufts, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Brown, Yale and Georgetown, to explore the development of robots with autonomous moral reasoning ability.
ONR cognitive science programme director Paul Bello was quoted by Defense One as saying that even though today's unmanned systems are 'dumb' in comparison to a human counterpart, progress is being made to incorporate more automation at a faster pace.
"As researchers, we are playing catch-up trying to figure out the ethical and legal implications." Bello said. "We do not want to be caught similarly flat-footed in any kind of military domain where lives are at stake."
The US Department of Defense (DoD) has, however, prohibited use of lethal, completely autonomous robots. However, researchers say that semi-autonomous robots will not be able to choose and engage particular targets or specific target groups until they are selected by an authorised human operator.
"Even if such systems aren't armed, they may still be forced to make moral decisions," Bello added. He also noted that in a catastrophic scenario, the machine might have to decide who to evacuate or treat first.
Despite the envisioned systems having extensive use in first-response, search-and-rescue missions, and even in the medical domain, Bello added that the idea of in-theatre robots is still a consideration.
Some advanced drones, such as BAE System's Taranis and Northrop Grunman's X-47B, already have some self-direction programmed into them.
According to Wendell Wallach, author of 'Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right From Wrong', some types of morality are simple and easier to code.
"There's operational morality, functional morality, and full moral agency," Wallach said.