Killer flying robots are here. What do we do now?


killer drones
Sailors moving an X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator onto an aircraft elevator aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush Tuesday, May 14, 2013. (AP Photo/U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Timothy Walter)

In the popular Terminator movies, a relentless super-robot played by Arnold Schwarzenegger tracks and attempts to kill human targets. It was pure science fiction in the 1980s. Today, killer robots hunting down targets have not only become reality, but are sold and deployed on the field of battle. These robots aren’t cyborgs, like in the movies, but autonomously operating killer drones. The new Turkish-made Kargu-2 quadcopter drone can allegedly autonomously track and kill human targets on the basis of facial recognition and artificial intelligence — a big technological leap from the drone fleets requiring remote control by human operators. A United Nations Security Council report claims the Kargu-2 was used in Libya to mount autonomous attacks on human targets. According to the report, the Kargu-2 hunted down retreating logistics and military convoys, “attack[ing] targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition.”

The burgeoning availability and rapidly expanding capabilities of drones pose urgent challenges to all of humanity. First, unless we agree to halt their development and distribution, autonomous killer drones like the Kargu-2 will soon be affordable and operable by anyone — from rogue states all the way down to minor criminal gangs and individual psychopaths. Second, swarms of killer drones may, through sheer numbers, render irrelevant the defences against terrorist threats deployed by technologically advanced nations. Third, in creating a challenging new asymmetry in warfare, autonomous killer drones threaten to upset the balance of power that otherwise keeps the peace in various regions. The increasing ubiquity of affordable drones is an open invitation to one power and another to turn stable regions into battle zones.

The arrival and rapid proliferation of robot-like killer drones comes as no surprise. For decades, consumer technology has been outpacing military adoption of advanced technologies. Because a drone is essentially a smartphone with rotors, today’s affordable consumer drones are largely a byproduct of the rapid development of smartphone technology. They are making access to the third dimension essentially free and creating new commercial opportunities: Drones can already deliver groceries and medical supplies directly to your doorstep. But in endowing drones with human-like cognitive abilities—for instance, by combining rapidly improving facial recognition with artificial intelligence — will make powerful targeted weapons available to tin-pot despots, terrorists, and rampaging teenagers at a fraction of the cost of the fancy drones flown by the U.S. military. And unless we take concrete steps now to oppose such developments, instructions to turn cheap off-the-shelf drones into automated killers will be posted on the Internet in the very near future.

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This story is reprinted with permission from Foreign Policy

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