Scenario: Knowledge as a Weapon

Carsten Trinitis, Anton Frank

IT can work wonders, but it can also become a weapon of war. This raises difficult moral questions, especially when it comes to choosing an employer.

Johanna is a student at a renowned university in southern Germany, where she has just defended her master’s thesis in computer science. Her thesis deals with automatic image recognition in poor weather conditions using machine learning.

From early childhood on, her parents raised her to handle nature with care, so she is absolutely euphoric over the fact that she is able to apply what she learned at university and in her master’s thesis to environmental protection. She has already been in contact with a start-up that specializes in early detection of forest damage aided by AI-controlled drones.

Recently, however, Johanna received an extremely lucrative job offer from a company in southern Germany that specializes in image recognition and automatic control of military drones. Even though the job sounds very appealing and is closely related to the topic of her master’s thesis, she rejects the offer outright because she hails from a pacifist family. Her parents demonstrated with prominent members of the peace movement back in the 1980s. They certainly would never talk to her again if she took a job in the arms industry!

At the commencement ceremonies for her graduating class, Johanna meets fellow student Volodymyr, who has been studying at the same school for two semesters. He’s really interested in her research because he also wants to specialize in the same field and has already completed an internship working on the military use of drones. Volodymyr had to leave his original university after five semesters because his home country was attacked by a neighboring country and regular instruction was no longer possible. He invites Johanna to come to the weekly get-together of his fellow refugees.

There she meets Julija and Oleksandr, who tell her about their family situations and the dangers they and their compatriots who have fled their homes still face to this day. The unspeakable suffering and dangers of the conflict there become more real and slowly take on names and faces for Johanna. Over the course of the evening, Johanna is increasingly confronted with the accusation that her country is not providing enough support, including in the military sphere. Her pacifist arguments fall on deaf ears, and she is told in detail how much less suffering would be caused if the invaded country were equipped with the appropriate reconnaissance and defense technology.

Johanna is reminded of the offer from the military technology company that she’s already turned down. After much hesitation, Johanna is just about to tell the others about the job offer when Alexei joins the group. He, too, was recently forced to flee his home country because he tried to speak up for the LGBTQ community. His country is the one that attacked Volodymyr’s. He talks about his parents who are living in the border zone and the way a neighbor’s house was recently destroyed in a drone attack that killed the father of the family living there. Following a brief round of goodbyes, Johanna—visibly shaken—makes her way home. She rifles through the mailbox, looking for the job offer, and reads it again. It just leaves her filled with cluelessness and despair.

Authors’ note: We want to make this clear—we know that there are political answers to many of the questions posed here. We, however, are strictly concerned with the ethical dimensions of these questions.


  • Should Johanna follow her parents’ lead and dismiss out of hand any job that involves military production?
  • What does it take to have a clear conscience about the environment? Is it enough to place your own personal research in the service of environmental protection?
  • How should Johanna act towards Volodymyr? Should she share with him her research results even if she knows he may use them for military purposes?
  • Is military aid to protect the people in Volodymyr’s homeland justified, even if it potentially endangers Alexei’s parents?
  • In this case, wouldn’t it be better to do everything humanly possible to help the invaded country?
  • How far should this aid go—humanitarian, military, …?
  • How do we assess the ethics of a technology that may be designed primarily for the purpose of protecting human life, but which might also lead to people being killed?
  • Would research into military solutions be justified if Johanna were able to guarantee that such drones were used exclusively for defense purposes and not for attacks?
  • Should research into dual-use goods be dismissed altogether simply because the potential for misuse exists?

Published in .inf 03. Das Informatik-Magazin, Fall 2023,

Translated from German by Lillian M. Banks

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