Designed for Death: Controlling Killer Robots


Steven Umbrello

ISBN 978-615-6405-37-1           Paperback, €44.00

ISBN 978-615-6405-36-4           Hardcover, €97.00

eISBN 978-615-6405-38-8          eBook, €44.00

For any unavailable copies on our website, please refer to our distributors: ISD LLC for North and South America and EUROSPAN for Europe and the rest of the world.



Foreword  Download PDF

Editor’s Foreword

Preface Download PDF

CHAPTER 1. What are Autonomous Weapons Systems?

CHAPTER 2. What is ‘Autonomy’ & Why is it Important?

CHAPTER 3. Thinking in Systems

CHAPTER 4. Value Sensitive Design

CHAPTER 5. Challenges & Redesign

CHAPTER 6. Meaningful Human Control

CHAPTER 7. Hope in an Unholy Alliance

CHAPTER 8. Designing AWS for Values





Further Reading

Suggested Further Reading



Data sheet

Steven Umbrello
Trivent Transhumanism
Book series
Ethics and Robotics
Book series editor(s)
Steven Umbrello
Publication date
July, 2022
Page numbers

Specific References

Autonomous weapons systems, often referred to as ‘killer robots’, have been a hallmark of popular imagination for decades. However, with the inexorable advance of artificial intelligence systems (AI) and robotics, killer robots are quickly becoming a reality. These lethal technologies can learn, adapt, and potentially make life and death decisions on the battlefield with little-to-no human involvement. This naturally leads to not only legal but ethical concerns as to whether we can meaningful control such machines, and if so, then how. Such concerns are made even more poignant by the ever-present fear that something may go wrong, and the machine may carry out some action(s) violating the ethics or laws of war. 

Researchers, policymakers, and designers are caught in the quagmire of how to approach these highly controversial systems and to figure out what exactly it means to have meaningful human control over them, if at all. 

In Designed for Death, Dr Steven Umbrello aims to not only produce a realistic but also an optimistic guide for how, with human values in mind, we can begin to design killer robots. Drawing on the value sensitive design (VSD) approach to technology innovation, Umbrello argues that context is king and that a middle path for designing killer robots is possible if we consider both ethics and design as fundamentally linked. Umbrello moves beyond the binary debates of whether or not to prohibit killer robots and instead offers a more nuanced perspective of which types of killer robots may be both legally and ethically acceptable, when they would be acceptable, and how to design for them.

STEVEN UMBRELLO is the Managing Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Delft University of Technology and a Stiftung Südtiroler Sparkasse Global Fellow at Eurac Research. He studied philosophy of science and technology at the University of Toronto (H.B.A), epistemology, ethics, and mind at the University of Edinburgh (MSc), science and technology studies at York University (MA), and the ethics and design of AI at the Northwestern Italian Philosophy Consortium (PhD). His research focuses more broadly on value sensitive design, its philosophical foundations as well as its application to novel technologies like AI, nanotech, and Industry 4.0.

Killer robots continue to raise ethical and political questions as they are used in wars all over the world – today even in Europe. Rather than simply rejecting such technologies or discussing Terminator scenarios, "Designed for Death" is a careful and pragmatic argument for meaningful human control over real-world autonomous weapon systems. Using the value sensitive design approach, accounting for military procedures and design histories, and taking an interesting holistic, systems thinking approach, Steven Umbrello shows how technologies embody and disembody values in often unforeseen or unforeseeable ways, and offers a thorough philosophical analysis of autonomy and meaningful human control that can guide regulation in this area.

Mark Coeckelbergh, University of Vienna

"Designed for Death" tackles the challenging ethical issues raised by autonomous weapons systems, such as what we mean by ‘meaningful human control’. This book challenges the reader to see beyond simplistic ‘black’ or ‘white’ answers and engage with what we mean when speaking of ‘autonomy’. This book draws us into a much broader systems view of the ethical issues and rightly places anthropology, sociology, and the philosophy of technology right back at the centre of the conversation. It will inspire policymakers to a more nuanced approach and provide the more general reader with an introduction to the issues and how we might think our way to a reasoned response to the employment of automated weapons systems.

Beth Singler, University of Cambridge

Steven Umbrello offers a much-needed middle path to the debate surrounding increasingly autonomous weapons systems. In this accessible and well-written book, Umbrello makes a compelling case in support of embedding values into autonomous weapons systems as an effective method of ensuring meaningful human control is maintained into the future. Umbrello shows how Value-Sensitive Design and Systems Thinking offer a far more effective solution to these issues than the international civil-society led campaign for a ban, which has thus far been unsuccessful and would be of questionable value. I highly recommend this book to policymakers and scholars looking for an effective middle-ground along which we can progress meaningfully toward ethical controls over autonomous weapons systems.

Austin Wyatt, University of New South Wales, and author of The Disruptive Impact of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems Diffusion: Modern Melians and the Dawn of Robotic Warriors

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