Remember the opening scene of the first Terminator movie?
The opening credits claim that man and machine will fight their final battle in the present, not the future.
Well, that battle may be about to begin, with protests over the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to create autonomous weapons of war.
The US military is already using automated equipment for various roles, and even more are on the drawing board. While not totally automated, MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones have flown countless missions over Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, all from the safety of air-conditioned trailers in Nevada.
In 2015, US Navy Secretary Ray Mabus stated that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter ‘should be, and almost certainly will be, the last manned strike fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly.’
The Navy has already trialled an unmanned drone as part of its Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) program. The drone successfully completed take-offs and landings on an aircraft carrier, but the Navy has recently decided to employ the new drones in a refuelling role.
As far as warships go, the new US Zumwalt class guided missile destroyers are far more automated than their predecessors. The Zumwalt has a crew of 147 sailors — almost half that of similar warships. The destroyer also makes use of three drone MQ-8 Fire Scout helicopters.
Robots are also nothing new to the US Army. Bomb disposal robots have been around since the 1970s, but more sinister bots are also in use. Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs) armed with machine guns, grenade launchers, or even a non-lethal laser are like miniature tanks. Though deployed in Iraq in 2007, early versions have never fired a shot in anger.
At the moment, these systems are not fully automated, requiring human operators to control them and choose when, or if, to use their weapons. But advances in artificial intelligence may soon make some of the current crop of robots outdated. Russia has already released footage of its FEDOR AI robot firing handguns, seemingly autonomously. Compared to a Terminator, FEDOR is a little clumsy. But development is happening now, not in the future.
Late last year, representatives from 116 countries working on AI projects called for the UN to ban all lethal autonomous weapons. This followed similar calls in 2015. Signatories to the open letter reportedly included Elon Musk, and Mustafa Suleyman (Head of Applied AI at Google’s DeepMind).
An extract from the letter states that once lethal autonomous weapons are developed:
‘…they will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend… Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close.’
Unfortunately, the box is already open. Lethal autonomous weapons have been in use for a long time in the form of cruise missiles. For the time being at least, humans still push the firing button. But how long will it be before robots are making these same life-or-death decisions?
By Craig Henderson