Despite the cinematic warnings, land, air, and sea robots, no longer the things of science fiction, have quickly become a standard part of the modern arsenal—and now there’s even serious debate to program killer bots and drones to think on their own, and communicate with each other. Are we at the beginning of an inevitable process leading to the rise of killer robots” predicted by science fiction, or can robots actually make war less destructive?
What comes next in the advancement of military robots? A lot of times when people hear ‘autonomous weapons,’ they envision the Terminator and they are, like, ‘What have we done?,’ ” says Paul Scharre , who directs a future-of-warfare program at the Centre for a New American Security , a policy research group in Washington, D.C. But that seems like probably the last way that militaries want to employ autonomous weapons.” Much more likely, he adds, will be robotic weapons that target not people but military objects like radars, tanks, ships, submarines, or aircraft.
While drones like the MQ-9 Reaper top, used by the U.S. military, are remotely controlled by human operators, a few robotic weapons, like the Phalanx gun on U.S. Navy ships can engage targets all on their own, military leaders however remain wary of heading down the road toward what have been called fully autonomous weapons: robots that can select targets, aim, and fire without human intervention. The U.S. military and forces abroad have so far been conservative about how autonomous military robots should be deployed, amid public fears of killer robots” run amok or tiny, autonomous spy drones patrolling cities.
Although as Peter Singer, a strategist at the New America Foundation and the author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, wrote in 2009 that the number of military ground robots deployed in Iraq went from about 150 in late 2004 to about 12,000 just four years later. Today the use of drones to counter the improvised explosive device (IED) threat in Iraq and carry out aerial bombing campaigns in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia has elevated military robots to a more prominent role in U.S. military operations.
China’s growing robotic arsenal includes numerous attack and reconnaissance drones The CH-4 is a long-endurance unmanned aircraft that resembles the Predator used by the U.S, and is believed to be developing its own autonomous weapons systems, as well as remote-controlled robots, according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
While the UK military held a the four-week Autonomous Warrior 2018 exercise in which British troops and industry partners developed and tested more than 50 prototype technologies including enhanced surveillance drones and unmanned vehicles, providing aerial and ground robots can bring supplies to the combat line in a more efficient manner while placing fewer human soldiers at risk. While unmanned weapons systems will become gradually more autonomous so that they can carry out very specific missions with less human direction, they may never entirely replace human soldiers on the battlefield.
From a combat perspective and in regards to fully autonomous warriors, companies like Northrop Grumman, iRobot and Lockhead Martin have showcased warrior robots and HDT Robotics, showed off a system that’s both fierce and apparently ready for action, and they have support from some experts, such as university professor Ron Arkin, who works with the Pentagon’s technology arm, confirms that the Future Combat Systems programme is fast moving towards such autonomous systems and that lethal autonomous weapons systems could actually reduce the number of civilian wartime casualties going forward. It seem for the moment though, the military presently prefers to keeping humans ‘in-the-loop or on-the-loop’ of current and future robotic and autonomous systems,
Given recent advances in prosthetics, another possible implementation of robotic weapons systems could be to combine them with humans, through augmentation. However, modification of human soldiers raises even more troubling ethical issues than the development of fully autonomous robots. While the concept offers the best of both worlds: the quick reaction times, precision, and strength of robotic systems and the control and superior cognitive abilities of humans, with millions of dollars likely to could go into technologically upgrading the body and mind of a single soldier, they would never be able to revert to civilian life, or likely not even be capable of live anything close to a normal life when not engaged in a war?
At least 19 countries and international organizations, including Human Rights Watch, have called for an international ban on autonomous, lethal robots, potentially similar to existing restrictions on undetectable mines and blinding laser weapons. Perhaps it is time we all took time to explore the philosophy and ethics of our increasingly smart and autonomous military machines. Do we really want fully autonomous robotic warriors, or warriors that are only aided by robots?