“Killer robots should be banned…” But I want one!

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The Terminator – coming to a war zone near you!

 Human Rights Watch has released a 50-page report on the subject of “fully autonomous weapons” that could kill without any human interaction required – in other words, killer robots, like Arnie in The Terminator.  And surprise surprise, the report (catchily entitled Losing Humanity: the Case Against Killer Robots) says that they should be banned – now, before anyone pours too much money into such a project.

“Giving machines the power to decide who lives and dies on the battlefield would take technology too far,” said Steve Goose, the HRW arms division director. “Human control of robotic warfare is essential to minimising civilian deaths and injuries.”  The robot would have to make ethical judgements as well as tactical and strategic decisions: for instance, are some civilian casualties acceptable weighed against the battle outcome.  At the moment these kind of decisions are made by human officers on the battle ground.  But can a computer be fully capable?

And then there’s the scenario of a malfunctioning robot soldier.  Do we really want to risk having a heavily armed killer robot running amok?

There are already basic semi-automous weapons systems already in use – for instance the drone aircraft that are famous for firing hellfire missiles at innocent Afghan wedding parties, and the Phalanx CIWS (Close-In Weapons System) that is used to protect ships from missiles. And in December 2010, the South Korean firm DoDAAM unveiled the Super aEgis II  an automated turret-based weapon platform that uses thermal imaging to lock onto human-sized targets up to 3km away. It is able to function during nighttime and regardless of weather conditions . No one has yet created a robot soldier, but several countries are actively looking into the subject, such as the US, China, Germany, Israel, South Korea, Russia and Britain.  The HRW report claims that experts believe operative machines could be ready in 20 years if not sooner.  And who knows what is going on in top secret defence projects?  They’re not called “top secret” for nothing.

So the report recommends that international treaties banning these kinds of weapons should be banned now, before any country gets too involved in such a project – no government wants to scrap a project that it’s already invested billions of dollars into.

“It is essential to stop the development of killer robots before they show up in national arsenals,” Steve Goose said. “As countries become more invested in this technology, it will become harder to persuade them to give it up.”

But it’s hard to see this idea stay unexplored.  Automation is invading everyday life – why shouldn’t it be used on the battlefield?  I can certainly imagine the robot soldier being sold to the public as a way to avoid seeing our boys coming home in body bags.  But what will it be like for the people who are on the front line: not just soldiers, but the people who actually live in the war zone?  Mistakes are made by human soldiers – what could a fritzed Terminator be capable of?

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