"Long before it's in the papers"
June 04, 2013

RETURN TO THE WORLD SCIENCE HOME PAGE


Robot arms race seen underway

Expert calls for international dialogue

Feb. 26, 2008
Courtesy University of Sheffield
and World Science staff

A new arms race is un­der­way: the de­vel­op­ment of ro­bot weapons, says a ro­botics ex­pert.

Al­though mur­der­ous hu­manoids like the “Ter­mi­na­tors” of film fame may be many years away, com­put­er sci­ent­ist No­el Sharkey of the Uni­ver­s­ity of Shef­field, U.K. says we’re see­ing the first steps in this race al­ready.

A small, re­mote-con­trolled ro­bot known as SWORDS (Spe­cial Wea­pons Ob­ser­va­tion Re­con­nais­sance De­tect­ion Sys­tem) has joined U.S. sold­iers in Iraq in small num­bers start­ing last sum­mer. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Lo­rie Jew­ell)


Pro­po­nents of ro­bo­tic wea­pons point out that the ma­ch­ines can keep live sol­diers out of harm’s way. But Shar­key argues that they raise eth­i­cal ques­tions and will fall in­to ter­ror­ist hands soon­er or lat­er. 

He plans dis­cuss the is­sue Feb. 27 at a key­note ad­dress to a Lon­don con­fer­ence of the Roy­al Un­ited Ser­vic­es In­sti­tute, a de­fense and se­cur­ity think tank.

Sev­er­al na­tions are de­vel­op­ing ro­bot weapons, with the Un­ited States in the lead, Sharkey said. He cit­ed a U.S. De­fense De­part­ment re­port last De­cem­ber stat­ing the coun­try plans to spend some $4 bil­lion by 2010 on the innocuously-termed “un­manned sys­tems.”

Over 4,000 ro­bots are cur­rently de­ployed on the ground in Iraq and by Oc­to­ber 2006 un­manned air­craft had flown 400,000 flight hours, added Sharkey. To­day there’s al­ways a hu­man in­volved to de­cide on use of le­thal force, he added, but he pre­dicted this will change as there’s a grow­ing em­pha­sis on “au­tonomous weapons” that de­cide where, when and whom to kill.

Can­a­da, South Ko­rea, South Af­ri­ca, Sin­ga­pore, Is­ra­el, Chi­na, some Euro­pean coun­tries, Rus­sia and In­dia are al­so get­ting in on the ro­bot-weapons act, Sharkey added, with these last two de­vel­op­ing un­manned aer­i­al com­bat ve­hi­cles. 

Once war robots are widespread, “we can’t really put the ge­nie back in the bot­tle,” said Sharkey, known for serv­ing as chief judge on Ro­bot Wars, a tele­vised se­ries about ro­bot com­pe­ti­tions, and as an an­a­lyst for the BBC. 

“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?” he added. “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.” Sharkey said a small GPS-guided drone with au­to­pi­lot can be made for about $500. 

The eth­i­cal is­sues are trou­bling, 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.”

Military tech­no­logy ex­pert James Can­ton last year told the ma­ga­zine of the U.S. de­fense in­dus­try, Na­tion­al De­fense, that ro­bot war tech­no­logies are ad­vanc­ing at break­neck speed. He added that this pace is re­mi­nis­cent of Moore’s law—the ob­ser­vation that com­pu­ter chip ca­pa­city doubles about every two years—but “on steroids.” Totally auto­no­mous ro­bots will soon re­place re­mote-con­trolled ones, he con­ti­nued, and fight­ing units be­fore long may have many more ro­bots than hu­mans.

Canton acknowledged concerns that robots could make the United States “trigger happy” because the nation will not be risking lives. “That’s a disturbing scenario,” he told the magazine, but he added that robot armies are costly and and some soldiers would still be at risk.

* * *

Send us a comment on this story, or send it to a friend

 

Sign up for
e-newsletter
   
 
subscribe
 
cancel

On Home Page         

LATEST

  • Meet­ing on­line may lead to hap­pier mar­riages

  • Pov­erty re­duction, environ­mental safe­guards go hand in hand: UN re­port

EXCLUSIVES

  • Was black­mail essen­tial for marr­iage to evolve?

  • Plu­to has even cold­er “twin” of sim­ilar size, studies find

  • Could simple an­ger have taught people to coop­erate?

  • Diff­erent cul­tures’ mu­sic matches their spe­ech styles, study finds

MORE NEWS

  • F­rog said to de­scribe its home through song

  • Even r­ats will lend a help­ing paw: study

  • D­rug may undo aging-assoc­iated brain changes in ani­mals

A frightening new arms race is underway—the development of robot weapons, said a robotics expert. Although murderous humanoids like the “Terminators” of film fame may be many years away, computer scientist Noel Sharkey of the University of Sheffield, U.K. said we’re seeing the first steps in this race already. Robot killers raise ethical questions and will fall into terrorist hands sooner or later, Sharkey added. He plans discuss the issue Feb. 27 at a keynote address to a London conference of the Royal United Services Institute, a defense and security think tank. Several nations are developing robot weapons, with the United States in the lead, Sharkey said. He cited a U.S. Defense Department report last December stating the country plans to spend some $4 billion by 2010 on the innocuously-termed “unmanned systems.” Over 4,000 robots are currently deployed on the ground in Iraq and by October 2006 unmanned aircraft had flown 400,000 flight hours, added Sharkey. Today there’s always a human involved to decide on use of lethal force, he added, but he predicted this will gradually change as there’s a growing emphasis on “autonomous weapons” that decide where, when and who to kill. Canada, South Korea, South Africa, Singapore, Israel, China, Russia and India are also getting in on the robot-weapons act, Sharkey added, with these last two developing unmanned aerial combat vehicles. “We can’t really put the genie back in the bottle,” said Sharkey, best known for serving as chief judge on Robot Wars, a televised series about robot competitions, and as an onscreen expert for the BBC. “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?” he added. “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.” Sharkey said a small GPS-guided drone with autopilot can be made for about $500. The ethical issues are troubling, 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.”