Skip to main content

UN attempts to stave off Skynet-like apocalypse with debate on killer robots

While the technology for autonomous killer robots is still a little way in the future, it appears the idea has some members of the United Nations a little rattled.

An informal meeting of experts is set to take place in the United Nations in Geneva on the possibility, necessity and ethics of using robots for military purposes. Two robotics experts, Prof Ronald Arkin and Prof Noel Sharkey, will debate the efficacy of "lethal autonomous weapons systems", or "killer robots" to the rest of us.

The meeting will be held as part of the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), and the resulting report will be produced at the November summit of the CCW council in November of this year.

A military robot would have the ability to navigate an environment autonomously, and engage enemy combatants with lethal weapons. Of course, it would also be responsible for differentiating between enemy combatants and all the other kinds of unfortunates who usually bear the brunt of suffering in the world's many conflicts.

That is, if they were even programmed to make the distinction.

"Autonomous weapons systems cannot be guaranteed to predictably comply with international law," Prof Sharkey told the BBC. "Nations aren't talking to each other about this, which poses a big risk to humanity."

For instance, who would be responsible if an autonomous system was responsible for the death of a prisoner of war? Its programmers? Its manufacturer?

Many are predicted to come out in favour of a moratorium on the development of such systems. Side events at the CCW will be hosted by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, for instance.

But others remain more optimistic about the future of killer robots. Prof Arkin is predicted to argue that the autonomous systems may be better able to determine when not to engage a target than human soldiers, "and could potentially exercise greater care in so doing".

On 21 November 2012 the United States Defense Department issued a directive that, "requires a human being to be 'in-the-loop' when decisions are made about using lethal force," according to Human Rights Watch.

The US Navy is currently developing a line of creepily human-like androids in order to combat fire on board ships, dubbed the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR). Two designs for the robots will be tested this summer aboard a decommissioned amphibious landing ship.

Meanwhile it was announced that Switzerland will host the first Cybathlon, an Olympics designed specifically for bionic athletes, in 2016.