A dystopian nightmare, in which machines make life-and-death decisions on the battlefield or in policing scenarios is not far away. It’s not Skynet or Cylons—at least, not yet—but the development of weapons with decreasing amounts of human control is already underway.
More than 380 partly autonomous weapon systems have been deployed or are being developed in at least 12 countries, including China, France, Israel, South Korea, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. South Korea deploys mechanized sentries in the demilitarized zone, while Israel’s Iron Dome detects and destroys short-range rockets. US missile-defense systems like the Patriot and Aegis are semi-autonomous, and the US military has completed testing of an autonomous anti-submarine vessel, which is able to sink other submarines and ships without anyone on board. The United Kingdom is developing Taranis, a drone that can avoid radar detection and fly in autonomous mode. Russia has built a robot tank that can be fitted with a machine gun or grenade launcher, and has manufactured a fully automated gun that uses artificial neural networks to choose targets. China is developing weapon “swarms”—small drones that could be fitted with heat sensors and programmed to attack anything that emits a body temperature.
If this trend continues unconstrained, humans will eventually be cut out of crucial decision-making. Some people in advanced militaries desire this. But many roboticists, scientists, tech workers, philosophers, ethicists, legal scholars, human-rights defenders, peace-and-disarmament activists, and governments of countries with less-advanced militaries have called for an international ban on the development of such weapons.
The risks of killer robots
Proponents of fully autonomous weapon systems argue that these weapons will be keep human soldiers in the deploying force out of danger and that they will be more “precise.” They believe these weapons will make calculations and decisions more quickly than humans, and that those decisions—in targeting and in attack—will be more accurate than those of humans. They also argue that the weapons will not have emotional responses to situations—they won’t go on a rampage out of revenge; they won’t rape.