The world is witnessing the dawn of killer robots that can kill without any further human interaction once launched. Do our leaders have the will or simply the intelligence to stop it happening before it is too late for all of us?
I recently heard about an organisation called Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. CSKR… or CTSKR if you slip in the lower case ‘to.’ At this point some of you faithful readers may be wondering if this month’s post is going to be a bit tongue in cheek. Maybe even about some hit comedy show transferring from this summer’s Edinburgh festival to London’s West End. However, this subject is far from funny and might just be one of the most important issues of our time. Please watch this very short film…
While this short film highlights the dangers quite graphically I hope you would agree that in our increasingly messed-up new world order of rising nationalism, conflict and proxy wars the dangers are all too apparent. Also the preemptive or reactive use of jackboot tactics used by a growing number of world leaders to oppress their own citizens by stamping all over the rule of law by invoking the catch-all of terrorism, means that those with totalitarian leanings or out and out dictators would be using this technology already if it was available. You think not? Just luck at Putin’s role in Syria. To play the big world leader for domestic consumption and cling onto Russia’s only airbase and seaport access in the middle east he has stood by while Bashar al-Assad has systematically murdered hundreds of thousands of his own citizens, which Assad conveniently labelled as terrorists, despite at least a third of them being women and children.
The Syrian Army have used any number of weapons banned under international treaties like cluster and barrel bombs. They have even deployed deadly sarin nerve gas on their own people many times. But he always gets away with it because any time an investigation of his horrific war crimes against humanity is opened by the UN, Russia simply deploys its UN Veto to suspend the investigation indefinitely once it becomes clear that Syria will be found culpable. The UN may have once been the world’s biggest hope for a lasting peace after the terrible wars of the 20th century but now it looks more and more useless because of the outdated veto privileges granted at its birth to just 5 countries: Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom and United States.
So how effective can any organisation or alliance of countries be at stopping the use of killing robots in the future unless something can be done now? Stewart Russell, who you met at the end of the video is a leading Artificial Intelligence (AI) scientist at the University of California in Berkeley said only this week: “The use of autonomous weapons, such as drones, tanks and automated machine guns, would be devastating for human security and freedom, and the window to halt their devastating development it closing fast.” As you can imagine those in charge of defence budgets have so embraced the idea that this will be the future that the military is already by far the biggest funders and adopters of robot technology. Drones have long been flown remotely for military surveillance and attacks but autonomous armed weapons with target recognition systems, if not already secretly developed are certainly within reach. These weapons will be able to locate and strike without deferring to a human controller.
Handing machines the power over life and death obviously crosses a clear moral line and in an ideal world should be and would be severely restricted or outright banned. But we don’t live in an ideal world and never will so other solutions to prevent the true horror and potential huge human cost of such wars could eventually make the First and Second World Wars look like little more than a squabble among neighbours that got out of hand.
Russell also points out: “The technology illustrated in the film is simply an integration of existing capabilities… …in fact it is easier to achieve than self-driving cars, which require far higher standards of performance.” This is no longer science fiction, like in some film featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger or a Marvel comic superhero ultimately triumphing over a robot menace, this is now almost science fact. So if you don’t want to share this blog post at the very least please share the YouTube video clip with your friends because as I said at the beginning – this may well turn out to be one of the biggest issues of our time.