What will curtail their mis-use - either by individuals or by the authorities? Transparency would be a good start - requiring not just individual citizens but also local & state governments & corporations to follow the same common sense rules. Autonomous drones in particular will need to be regulated so that the misbehavior of a drone can be traced back to its owner. That matches the trajectory of every useful, potentially dangerous technology that’s come along so far (the gun, the car, the airplane, etc.). One can picture a world where civilian drones are color-coded by their purpose (e.g., green for city-owned, blue for federally-owned, red for privately-owned) and must display tail numbers - as well as broadcasting a unique ID on some standard frequency. That ID should be able to be keyed into a web registry to determine its owner - and possibly cross-referenced through a Google-maps-like interface to affirm its current location and historical geolocation data. If geolocation is possible on every cell phone, it should be possible with autonomous drones. In such a system, unmarked or incorrectly marked drones flitting about will be immediately suspicious. There might even be city-owned drones charged with spotting unregistered drones.
In a military context, autonomous drones are more problematic. I think the only thing that’s likely to prevent a hellish outcome will be international treaties and international cooperation. It sounds boring, but it’s worked before. Humans are, after all, social creatures. The proof? Despite world-destroying weapons, we’re still here.
I grew up during the Cold War, and at times it seemed inevitable that East and West would annihilate each other along with the entire human race. But we didn’t. We pulled back from the brink, creating anti-nuclear and anti-biological, anti-chemical, and anti-laser-blinding weapons treaties that almost all of the world’s nations have become party to. And they’ve largely worked. Sure we have certain nations seeking nuclear weapons, but the result has been to be ostracized by the entire global community. Very much the same thing needs to be done with lethally autonomous robotic weapons. While they can and will be built, there will need to be a realization that automation of war is toxic for representative government. It centralizes power and decentralizes accountability. Furthermore, the most likely targets are business and political leaders of countries themselves. That alone should encourage nations of the world to cooperate with one another in codifying legal (defensive) uses of combat drones and regulating their manufacture and distribution. Since drones aren’t going away, and lethally autonomous drones will appear sooner rather than later, it’s important that law-abiding nations not only have drones themselves, but that they have the very best drones (if only to defend against other drones). Yet along with those drones, they must also develop the best legal framework to govern their just use.
Many people are surprised to hear that there’s currently no international legal framework for the use of drones in warfare - much less for the use of fully autonomous robotic weaponry. If you think there should be, please support the initiatives of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control.