Killer military robots pose latest threat to humanity

Feb 27, 2008

A robotics expert at the University of Sheffield will today (27 February 2008) issue stark warnings over the threat posed to humanity by new robot weapons being developed by powers worldwide.

In a keynote address to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Professor Noel Sharkey, from the University’s Department of Computer Science, will express his concerns that we are beginning to see the first steps towards an international robot arms race. He will warn that it may not be long before robots become a standard terrorist weapon to replace the suicide bomber.

Many nations are now involved in developing the technology for robot weapons, with the US Department of Defence (DoD) being the most significant player. According to the Unmanned Systems Roadmap 2007-2013 (published in December 2007), the US propose to spend an estimated $4 billion by 2010 on unmanned systems technology. The total spending is expected to rise above $24 billion.

Over 4,000 robots are currently deployed on the ground in Iraq and by October 2006 unmanned aircraft had flown 400,000 flight hours. Currently there is always a human in the loop to decide on the use of lethal force. However, this is set to change with the US giving priority to autonomous weapons - robots that will decide on where, when and who to kill.

Others are now embarking on robot weapons programmes in Europe and other allied countries such as Canada, South Korea, South Africa, Singapore and Israel. China, Russia and India are also embarking on the development of unmanned aerial combat vehicle. The US DoD report is unsure about the activity in China but admits that they have strong infrastructure capability for parallel developments in robot weapons.

Professor Sharkey, who is famously known for his roles as chief judge on the TV series Robot Wars and as onscreen expert for the BBC´s TechnoGames, said: “The trouble is that we can’t really put the genie back in the bottle. Once the new weapons are out there, they will be fairly easy to copy. How long is it going to be before the terrorists get in on the act"”

“With the current prices of robot construction falling dramatically and the availability of ready-made components for the amateur market, it wouldn’t require a lot of skill to make autonomous robot weapons.”

Professor Sharkey is reluctant to explain how such robots could be made but he points out that a small GPS guided drone with autopilot could be made for around £250.

The robotics expert is also concerned with a number of ethical issues that arise from the use of autonomous weapons. He added: “Current robots are dumb machines with very limited sensing capability. What this means is that it is not possible to guarantee discrimination between combatants and innocents or a proportional use of force as required by the current Laws of War.

“It seems clear that there is an urgent need for the international community to assess the risks of these new weapons now rather than after they have crept their way into common use.”

Professor Sharkey’s talk will be at a one-day conference at RUSI in Whitehall on 27 February 2008.

Source: University of Sheffield

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User comments : 7

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3 / 5 (1) Feb 27, 2008
I expect only after the first US citizen gets killed by an US robot we will see a hot debate on this topic.
2 / 5 (1) Feb 27, 2008
robot warfare is wonderful. without it, the us empire would crumble under the weight of a forced draft. robotic technology is a mere extension of power. while professor noel worries about it being copied cheaply and used assymetrically by terrorists, the reality is that , much like the american indians bought their guns from the euro-american society , the terrorists in techno-backwards countries will remain dependant upon the rest of the world for parts, gps sattelite data, and ai code, depsite any home grown ability they may have to assemble the robots on their own. In the end, they are helpless. the real worry , if any, is of the intentions of the countries holding this technology, not the terrorists.

not rated yet Feb 27, 2008
zevkirsh, as mentioned in the article, his main concern is that you could have a terrorist in say, NYC, who goes down to their local hobby store, buys a 1000 dollars worth of equipment, and assembles a flying drone that can carry, say, 20 pounds of bleach and 20 pounds of ammonia. Then they fly it into the entrance of a mall or something.

That would be moderately hard to do now, even for someone with skillz, but it is getting easier and easier. Soon enough it will be simply a matter of snapping together a few prefabbed parts, just like building a computer is now (you don't even need a soldering iron anymore).

How would you even catch such a person? If they're using commonly accessible prefabbed parts there is no way to trace them. Terrorism would become a lazy man's distance crime, where they could phone in to work everyday instead of their current risky behaviour.
5 / 5 (1) Feb 27, 2008
I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.
not rated yet Feb 27, 2008
Hmm, laptop webcam security software pistol with a LARGE clip all duct taped to a Roomba. Cheep, small, deadly.

Like the article says though, the genie is out of the bottle. Random vicious and destructive uses will be found for new technologies. Maybe that's why I keep thinking of building an EMP generator in the garage.
not rated yet Feb 27, 2008
I would imagine that to produce a truly effective top of the rnge robot, you would need to purpose build and engineer the parts - so I'm betting that the robots produced in the military research labs of the most tech savvy countries will far outstrip robots built by prefab parts.

On the other hand you have to ask how much damage could be done with a robot that wasn't top of the range, and was built by the aformentioned "prefab" components. Enough for the equivalent of a suicide attack?

This may mean that we will need rather intense surveillance to protect ourselves from maverick robots.

In the more distant future one could imagine a "screen" of sophisticated miniturised robots - perhaps even nanotechnology - guarding us from attack. That, at least, would be something beneficial - a means of defending onesself in a non- aggressive manner.

The lesson about our enemies using our technology is a relevant one, though. For example, a society like the Taliban - led Afghanistan would lack the machinery to even produce guns and bullets. They rely instead on arms being shipped to them.

So it is perhaps essential that we hold on to our own technology, and are completely scrupulous about who we sell arms to!

1 / 5 (1) Feb 28, 2008
My god - what over reactins - you can get humans at Psychos R Us 24/7 - it is who is calling the shots that matters - as long as we have a chimp as CEO we are in deep doodoo.

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