4 August 2009
Beware march of the killer robots, expert warns
By Hannah Devlin
A British expert is urging international action to curb the use of military robot tanks and aircraft.
Noel Sharkey, Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics at the University of Sheffield, said drones that could decide when and who to kill were almost here and would lead to a rapid rise in civilian casualties.
US drones, such as the Predator and Reaper, are being armed with cluster bombs and missiles and robot tanks such as the Talon Sword are armed with machine guns and grenade launchers. Besides Britain and the US, another 43 countries have programmes to develop military robots.
Professor Sharkey said that the increased deployment of automated military technology was already creating a culture of armchair warfare.
“I do think there should be some international discussion and arms control on these weapons but there’s absolutely none,” said Professor Sharkey.
The greatest concern, he said, was the inability of robots to tell the difference between civilians and combatants. Most of the technologies spot people simply using heat sensors.
“The nub of it is that robots do not have the necessary discriminatory ability. They can’t distinguish between combatants and civilians. It’s hard enough for soldiers to do that,” he said.
In the Geneva Convention the definition of “civilians” is given as “soldiers should use common sense”, a quality that computers and robots are not generally credited with.
Reducing the risk of injury and death faced by armed forces could lead to a more gratuitous approach to warfare, since a less rigorous political case would have to be made at home. “The main inhibitor of war is body bags coming home,” said Professor Sharkey.
Automated fighters may also remove a sense of responsibility from their controllers. “The further you are away, the easier it is to kill. They sit there all day, can get up to go to the toilet, can go home and have dinner with their wife and kids. It’s changing the nature of war dramatically,” he said.
Drone aircraft such as the Predator and the larger Reaper, pioneered for surveillance purposes in the 1980s, are now being armed with cluster bombs and missiles.
The US currently has 200 Predators and 30 Reapers and next year will increase spending on unmanned combat vehicles to 5.5 billion dollars (£3.29 billion).
Britain had two Predators until one crashed in Iraq last year.
Both machines are operated remotely by a controller sitting at a computer screen.
In Britain, only RAF pilots with combat experience are allowed to control the drone craft. However, in the US forces soldiers who have not been into combat are now being given six-week training courses. “If you’re good at computer games then you’re in,” said Professor Sharkey.
More recently there has been a proliferation of armed robot ground vehicles, such as the Talon Sword which is armed with machine guns, grenade launchers, and anti-tank missiles.
In Pakistan between January 2006 and April 2009, 60 drone attacks killed 14 al-Qaeda terrorists and 687 civilians, according to local reports. The technologies are also in widespread deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan and are likely to have been responsible for large numbers of civilian casualties. “Whenever you hear a missile has killed civilians, that will be an automated aircraft,” he said.
The Harpy robotic aircraft, developed by Israel, goes a step further towards removing human control from the loop.
The unmanned aircraft flies around searching for enemy radar signals. Once it identifies a signal, and identifies it as hostile by searching a database, the Harpy homes in on the source, effectively becoming a bomb. Israel has developed a version of the craft that could reach Iran.
Another 43 countries currently have programmes to develop military robots.
Professor Sharkey said that the role of the human controller was increasingly being phased out with a movement towards one person monitoring a large number of drone craft, with little power to intervene. “The next thing that’s coming, that really scares me is totally autonomous robots. It could happen now. The technology is there,” he said.
In 2008, the British aerospace company BAE
Systems carried out a flying trial with swarms of
drone planes that could communicate with each
other and select their own targets. The United
States Air Force is also looking at the concept
of “swarm technology”.