Experts Warn UN Delay on Autonomous Weapons Ban May Make a Killer Robot War Inevitable

Wednesday, 07 October 2015 - 12:47PM
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Robotics
Wednesday, 07 October 2015 - 12:47PM
Experts Warn UN Delay on Autonomous Weapons Ban May Make a Killer Robot War Inevitable
Military technology in several different countries is inching closer and closer to fully autonomous weapons, and lobbyists at the UN are attempting to curtail the usage of these weapons at the general assembly in New York. Unfortunately, experts warn that the combination of delays in talks and the leniency of the ban itself may not be sufficient to prevent future wars between these "killer robots."

According to Noel Sharkey, a professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield and co-founder of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, China is proposing a ban on "existing and emerging technologies," while representatives from the U.S. and the U.K. want to limit the ban to "emerging" technologies. If the agreement is watered down, then any technologies that are created while discussions are still occurring will be safe from the ban, and since UN action often takes several years to be executed, it may be far too late.

Opening quote
"The UK and US are both insisting that the wording for any mandate about autonomous weapons should discuss only emerging technologies. Ostensibly this is because there is concern that … we will want to ban some of their current defensive weapons like the Phalanx or the Iron Dome," Sharkey told The Guardian. "However, if the discussions go on for several years as they seem to be doing, many of the weapons that we are concerned about will already have been developed and potentially used."
Closing quote

And if the technology is already in existence, Sharkey asserts, then it will be very difficult to prevent governments from using them after the fact:

Opening quote
"A lot of money is going into development and people will want a return on their investment," said Sharkey. "If there is not a pre-emptive ban on the high-level autonomous weapons then once the genie is out of the bottle it will be extremely difficult to get it back in."
Closing quote

Semi-autonomous weapons are already in use, and are not without their controversies, as opponents claim that they have contributed to the dehumanization of warfare. But according to Sharkey, fully autonomous weapons are not far away, and in some cases are already in development.

Opening quote
"Governments are continuing to test autonomous weapons systems, for example with the X49B, which is a fighter jet that can fly on its own, and there are contracts already out for swarms of autonomous gun ships. So if we are tied up [discussing a ban] for a long time then the word 'emerging' is worrying."
Closing quote

The X49B presumably refers to an updated version of the Northrop Grumman X-47B, an unmanned combat fighter vehicle that has been in development for years and first flew in 2011. As of this year, the two active prototypes have been through extensive land and carrier-based demonstrations, completing the first primary test program. The technology technically already exists, and should be finished testing relatively soon, so it would likely be safe from this ban if it took three or four years to execute.

Opening quote
"People say that the convention on conventional weapons is a graveyard for good ideas because it's notoriously slow moving. If we see the brakes being applied now that would take discussions into a fourth year."
Closing quote

Sharkey is not alone in his concerns. In May, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots went into full swing, aiming to lobby for the ban of burgeoning technologies that have the potential to kill indiscriminately and without human supervision. 

Opening quote
"We need to have this discussion now and take a stance," co-founder Ryan Gariepy wrote in an open letter. "The robotics revolution has arrived and is not going to wait for these debates to occur."
Closing quote
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