Robot warriors: Lethal machines coming of age

Posted on 06 March 2013 by nsharkey

The BBC News Magazine published an article that pits Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams and Peter “Wired for War” Singer against Henric Christensen and Ron Arkin from Georgia Institute of Technology.

Henrick Christensen’s project funded by defence contractor BAE systems is used as an example of how autonomous robots may be used in conflict. The BBC notes that his aim is to “create unmanned vehicles programmed to map an enemy hideout, allowing human soldiers to get vital information about a building from a safe distance.” He stresses that these are only for reconnaissance and intelligence gathering.

But Jody Williams (Nobel Peace Laureate) is reported as insisting “that the autonomous systems currently under development will, in due course, be able to unleash lethal force.”

A number of blogs criticised the title of the recent Human Rights Watch Report – ‘Losing our Humanity: The case against killer robots’. They say that “killer robots” as a scare mongering tactic.

But Williams was very clear about that to the BBC saying that value-free terms such as “autonomous weapons systems” should be abandoned.

“We prefer to call them killer robots,” she says, defining them as “weapons that are lethal, weapons that on their own can kill, and there would be no human being involved in the decision-making process. When I first learnt about this,” she says, “I was honestly horrified — the mere thought that human beings would set about creating machines that they can set loose to kill other human beings, I find repulsive.”

The Article then goes on to discuss Ron Arkin’s opposition to a ban on killer robots. Arkin has had considerable funding from the military over the years and still works on military robotics. “He says that to ban such robots outright, without doing the research to understand whether they can lower non-combatant casualties, is to do “a disservice to those who are, unfortunately, slaughtered in warfare by human soldiers”.

His idea to have a robot with the laws of war plugged into its software is discussed here. But that is a paper project that was funded by the army and ended in 2009. There have been no further results since and no evidence for his case.

Read the full story in the BBC News Magazine

Noel SharkeyPhD, DSc FIET, FBCS CITP FRIN FRSA is Professor of AI and Robotics and Professor of Public Engagement at the University of Sheffield and was an EPSRC Senior Media Fellow (2004-2010).

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