30 April 2015
Ok, so that may sound a tiny bit dramatic, but with Canada preparing to take part in international talks on the use of so called "killer robots", and the US looking for robot specialists to build swarms of war drones that work together without human intervention, what are the implications of the possible use of lethal autonomous weapons in warfare? Should we all be scared of this seemingly science fiction future becoming a reality?
While there may be advantages to the use of lethal autonomous weapons (LAWS), such as the clearing of explosive devices, and the capability to "shoot second" with extreme accuracy, or even give the enemy the opportunity to surrender after that enemy has fired his weapon, potentially reducing civilian casualties and increasing the likelihood of capturing enemy fighters, there are obviously many concerns regarding the development of such deadly technology.
No matter how advanced the technology, there is always the possibility of a malfunction, or even a hacking, leading to unthinkable consequences, which is undoubtedly why there is a growing call for a pre-emptive global ban.
"The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. It would take off on it's own and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate" - Professor Stephen Hawking
While fully autonomous weapons, or "humans out of the loop" systems are still some way off, there is a growing voice of objectors who feel that allowing the research, development and ultimate use of robotic weapons will change the face of warfare in a chillingly Robocop-esque fashion.
And how long before we see the same technology used to put robotic law enforcement officers on our streets for example? At present, it's autonomy in surveillance that is rapidly advancing, rather than any programme to actually put armed robots on the beat. So don't worry for now, a real life Robocop is probably more than 100 years away...
While at present the US is leading the field in the advancement of LAWS, of course it won't always be this way. In fact, outside of the United States there are currently 76 countries with military robotics programmes, making it an issue of global concern.
Because while many will argue the benefits of a robotic future, such as the limiting of risk to personnel, and the driving down of costs, there are always going to be moral and ethical questions that will need answering. Are we really ready to hand over complete control to an automaton? Or should there always be an element of human decision making involved? Just to be sure.