The day that wars on planet earth are fought by robots instead of humans is approaching. Modern day militaries are already using a large amount of robots for all kinds of tasks. For example, the Talon Sword robots that were used by the US military in Iraq. These are small robots that are remotely controlled by soldiers and have all kinds of weapons mounted on them, ranging from sniper rifles, to machine guns and grenade launchers. This youtube video gives you a good impression of what these Talons are capable of.
The Talon Sword robots are just the beginning. Scientists expect that military robots will be able to think for themselves and act on their own accord without human interference within decades.
In my opinion, to a certain extend, autonomous killer robots actually already exist. A chilling example is the South Korean robot that is stationed right now on the border of the demilitarized zone between South- and North Korea.
In this video you can see the robot tracking humans from a distance of 1.25 miles away. At the end of the video you see the robot firing rapid bursts of bullets. Although the video doesn’t show this specifically, the robot can actually combine these two features. When it does, it is capable of shooting down a running man without any human interference. Just to be clear: this robot actually locates a target, follows it, determines if it’s a threat, and when it decides that the target is in fact a threat, it shoots it down. All of this without any human influence.
The glorifying music that the South Korean promo team added to the video may sound “cool”, but when you realize that it’s glorifying robots with autonomous killing capabilities, this makes the situation we are headed towards even more terrifying.
Ban on autonomous killer robots?
Obviously, the development of these autonomous killer robots comes with an abundance of legal, ethical and political issues.
To discuss these issues, the UN’s Convention on Conventional Weapons agreed to add the topic of killer robots to it’s agenda this year.
Several organizations and scholars believe these discussions should lead to a ban on autonomous killer robots, similar to chemical- and biological weapons.
However, I’m very skeptical of the chance such a treaty to ban autonomous killer robots will succeed. Autonomous killer robots have huge advantages for a modern day military compared to robots that have a human operator making the decisions at all times.
Strategic advantages of autonomous killer robots for military forces
Humans are just way to slow for a battle field that has robots fighting on it. While a robot can return fire within a fraction of a second, a human would need a couple of seconds to respond, giving the enemy time to get away.
Not only are humans too slow, a battle field full of robots presents a huge information-overload for humans. A human would not be able to process all that information adequately.
Also, if robots would always need human permission to fire, all the enemy has to do is jam the signal between the human operator and the robot. This would render the robot useless.
Besides strategic military advantages, there are also financial advantages to autonomous robots:
Producing robots is much cheaper than training personnel. It can takes years to train a human sniper, but it is relatively easy and cheap to create a robot that can aim a targeting laser at an enemy and shoot.
Plus, you don’t have to convince a robot to sign up for duty!
Finally, autonomous systems will lower the amount of human soldiers that are wounded or killed in combat. This will make it easier for the government to justify wars because the sons of it’s population are no longer coming home in body bags, thus making the people less opposed to wars because, atleast for them, wars no longer equal human suffering.
Other factors that make a ban on autonomous killer robots unlikely
Besides the huge advantages for modern militaries, there are other factors that make a ban on autonomous killer robots unlikely. One of those factors is that no weapon, no matter how horrible, has ever been banned before it gruesomely killed at least hundreds of thousands of people.
There have been quite a few incidents in which a military robot went crazy and killed a few soldiers or civilians but it seems a lot more robots will have to go on a killing spree before a ban stands a chance.
Another factor which I think makes a ban on autonomous killer robots unlikely is the fact that the military industrial base can earn a lot of money selling those mechanical soldiers.
There are close policy- and monetary relationships between legislators, national armed forces, and the military industrial base. The term military industrial complex is often used when talking about these reltionships in the US. But these relationships exist in many other states as well.
A ban on killer robots is not in the interest of the military industrial base because it will sell less weapons, robots in this case, and therefor make less money.
The military industrial base has (a lot?) of influence on national legislatures and will probably use this influence to try to prevent a ban on autonomous robots to protect their profits.
Are treaties successful in banning weapons?
Even if we, succeed in banning the use of autonomous robotic systems through treaties, it is very likely that even scarier robots than the South Korean border guard are going to emerge: not all countries become party to such conventions that ban certain weapons. The convention on cluster munitions,for example, has been ratified by 77 states. It is great that so many states have committed themselves to banning cluster munition. However, this also means that there are still 119 states that have not ratified the treaty.
Despite a ban on cluster munition and chemical weapons, we have seen both types of weapons being used in the ongoing conflict in Syria.
Keep in mind that one of the states that has not ratified the convention on cluster munition, even going as far as calling cluster munition less harmful to civilians than other types of weapons, is the United States. It just so happens to be that the United States is also one of the leading states in the development of military robots…
Considering the very large amount of states that have given their consent to the treaty on the non proliferation of nuclear weapons, you could argue that it is the most successful weapons treaties in that sense. The treaty has definitely curbed the development of nuclear weapons, which was one of it’s aims. However, a different aim of the treaty, nuclear disarmament, has not been reached. There are still several states that have large stockpiles of nukes.
The inevitable rise of killer robots
Because killer robots are so extremely attractive to modern day militaries and because existing weapons treaties have turned out to be only partially effective, I consider it likely that we are going to witness the first robot vs robot battles in the near future.
I’m thinking about elaborating more on the challenges and opportunities that autonomous killer robots are going to bring us in the areas of law, ethics and politics in a second post. Please let me know if you would be interested in such a post. And of course, I would like to encourage you to post any questions or remarks you may have.