Scientists Told to Halt Development of War Robots

This week’s been an interesting one for robot news. Yesterday, or a few days ago, there was a piece about the creation of a robot that could draw and paint thanks to facial recognition software. The robot’s art has been sold commercially. This follows an artistic group in France that has also developed an art robot. I’ll see if I can fish that story out, as it sounds like one of the conceits of 2000AD is becoming science fact. The Galaxy’s Greatest Comic told its readers that all its strips were the work of robots, so that the credits for the strips read ‘Script Robot X’, and ‘Art Robot Y’. Of course it was all created by humans, just as it really wasn’t edited by a green alien from Betelgeuse called Tharg. But it was part of the fun.

Killer robots aren’t, however. Despite the fact that they’ve been in Science Fiction for a very long time, autonomous military machines really are a very ominous threat to humanity. In today’s I for 15th February 2019 there was a report by Tom Bawden on page 11 about human rights campaigners telling the scientists at an American symposium on the technology that these machines should be preemptively banned. The article, ‘Scientists warned over ‘killer robots’ in future wars’, runs

Killer robots pose a threat to humanity and should be pre-emptively banned under an international treaty, the world’s biggest gathering of scientists was told yesterday.

Lethal, autonomous weapons – military robots that can engage and kill targets without human control – do not yet exist.

But rapid advances in autonomy and artificial intelligence mean they are well on their way to becoming a reality, delegates attending the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s symposium on the technology were told in Washington DC.

A poll conducted in 26 countries found that 54 per cent of Briton’s – and 61 per cent of respondents overall – opposed the development of killer robots that would select and attack targets without human intervention.

“Killer robots should be banned in a similar way to anti-personnel landmines,” said Mary Wareham, of the arms division at the campaign group Human Rights Watch, who also co-ordinates the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

“The security of the world and future of humanity hinges on achieving a ban on killer robots,” she added. “Public sentiment is hardening against the prospect of fully autonomous weapons. Bold, political leadership is needed for a new treaty to pre-emptively ban these weapons systems”.

The article was accompanied by a picture of one of the robots from the film Terminator Genisys, with a caption stating that it was perhaps unsurprising that most Britons oppose the development of such robots, but they wouldn’t look quite like those in the film.

I’ve put up several pieces before about military robots and the threat they pose to humanity, including a piece from the popular science magazine, Focus, published sometime in the 1990s, if I recall. Around about that time one state or company announced that it intended to develop such machines, and was immediately met with condemnation by scientists and campaigners. Their concern is that such machines don’t have the human quality of compassion. Once released, they could go on to kill indiscriminately, killing both civilians and soldiers. The scientists were also concerned that if truly intelligent killing machines are developed, then they could have the potential to turn on us and begin wiping us out or enslaving us. This was one of the threats to humanity’s future in the book Our Final Minute by the British Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees. When I saw him speak at the Cheltenham Festival of Science about his book a few years ago, one of the audience said that perhaps it would be a good thing if humanity was overthrown by the robots, because they could be better for the environment. Well, they could, I suppose, but it’s still not something I’d like to see happen.

Kevin Warwick, the robotics professor at the University of Reading, is also very worried about the development of such machines. In his 1990’s book, March of the Machines, he describes how, as far back as the 1950s, the Americans developed an autonomous military vehicle, consisting of a jeep adapted with a machine gun. He also discussed how one of the robots currently at the university could also be turned into a lethal killing machine. This is firefighting robot. It has a fire extinguisher, and instruments to detect fire. When it sees one, it rushes towards it and puts it out using the extinguisher. Warwick states, however, that if you replaced the extinguisher with a gun, gave it a neural net and then trained the machine to shoot people with blue eyes, say, then the machine would do just that until it ran out of power.

This comes at the end of the book. But it’s introduction is also chilling. It foresees a future, around 2050, when the machines really will have taken over. Those humans that have not been exterminated by the robots are kept as slaves, to work in those parts of the world that are still inaccessible or inhospitable to the robots, and to hunt down and kill the very few surviving humans that remain free. Pretty much like the far future envisioned by the SF writer Gregory Benford in his ‘Galactic Centre’ series novels.

Warwick was, however, very serious about the threat posed by these robots. I can remember seeing him also speak in Cheltenham, and one of the audience asked whether he still believed that this was a real threat that could occur about that time. He said he did, but that the he’d lowered the time at which it could become a real possibility.

Warwick has also said that one reason why he began to explore cyborgisation – the cybernetic enhancement of humans with robotic technology – was because he was so depressed with the threat robots cast over our future. Augmenting ourselves with high technology was a way we could compete with them, something Benford also explores in his novels through an alien race that has pursued just such a course. This, however, poses its own risks of loss of humanity, as depicted in Star Trek’s Borg and Dr. Who’s Cybermen.

This article sounds like something from Science Fiction, and I don’t think that at the moment robots are anywhere near as sophisticated to pose an existential threat to humanity right now. But killer robots are being developed, and very serious robotic scientists and engineers are very worried about them. Mary Wareham, Human Rights Watch and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots are right. This technology needs to be halted now. Before it becomes a reality.

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3 Responses to “Scientists Told to Halt Development of War Robots”

  1. sdbast Says:

    Reblogged this on sdbast.

  2. Mark Catlin Says:

    And humankind built Androids called Simulants/Agonoids in it’s own image.
    Agonoids were designed to be the perfect exponents of the favourite human sport: Killing!
    Mechanical warriors without any of the ucky bits that prevented humans from wiping out all life on the planet, such as pity, mercy or morality. And because their bodies didn’t contain any of the squishy or crunchy bits that made humans fairly easy to kill, they were virtually indestructible.
    They were programmed, of course, to obey orders. But they were also programmed to survive. And when humans started recalling the Agonoid population for decommissioning after a short but satisfying war, the survival instinct kicked in.
    Strangely the Agonoids creators were surprised when their creation turned on them. It wouldn’t surprise you and me, but it surprised them. Blew them away, in fact.

    Excerpt from The Red Dwarf; Backwards by Rob Grant.

  3. Florence Says:

    We already have drones, operated like video games by kids in fatigues thousands of miles away from the real messy business of blowing up humans. They regularly blow up the “wrong” humans based on data collected by these drones. This is already a step too far that we need to stop now. However, like the bans on nuclear proliferation, any treaty is only as good as the moral integrity of the politicians in power in any country at any time. That’s setting the bar far too low to rely on for our future survival.

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