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Science | History | Design & Technology | RE

New fighter plane heralds era of robot wars

Should robots be used in war? The US Air Force wants to stage a battle between a robot fighter plane and a piloted one. But many warn that any use of AI in war could lead to disaster. It would be just like a video game. A high-stakes spectator sport. Armies of autonomous machines would take each other on in a pre-arranged battlefield. Countries would be invaded, history rewritten, all without any violent loss of life. Why put a person in harm’s way when you could use a machine? Such real-life robot wars are not out of the question. Just this month, Lieutenant General Jack Shanahan of the Pentagon announced what he called a “bold, bold idea”. The US Air Force plans to pit an autonomous fighter jet against one piloted by a human in 2021, a huge step towards a new age of warfare. But for many, the prospect of robots that could kill represents the opposite of progress. “Why do people think it is okay to create machines that on their own can target and kill?” asks Nobel Prize winner Jody Williams, a supporter of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. Up until now, there is always a human in the “kill chain” – the series of decisions that need to be taken before a trigger is pulled. For example, drones controlled from the US are regularly used to fire missiles at suspected terrorists on the other side of the world. Paul Scharre, an expert on autonomous weapons, argues that militaries should always keep humans involved. People can spot errors, understand context and get “inside the mind of an enemy commander”. Nonetheless, automation is already everywhere and the military is no different. It helps focus cameras, steer missiles, and identify enemies. Some AI workers are trying hard to prevent such an outcome. Laura Nolan resigned from Google after being asked to work on a new military drone. She warns that autonomous weapons “have to be banned because they are far too unpredictable and dangerous”. It is this lack of knowledge around what a killer robot could one day do which alarms many researchers. Military scholars in China have even written about “battlefield singularity”, a point at which warfare happens faster than humans can notice or even understand. “If technology grows at a faster rate than our wisdom,” warns MIT Professor Max Tegmark, “it’s kind of like going into a kindergarten and giving the kids a bunch of hand-grenades.” Despite these risks, many countries continue to pursue research into automated weapons. In 2016, then US Deputy Secretary of Defence Robert Work explained why. “If our competitors go to Terminators,” he said, “and it turns out the Terminators are able to make decisions faster, even if they’re bad, how would we respond?” So, should robots be used in war? Droid army Yes. Using autonomous technology in battle could keep soldiers safer and allow them to be more precise and effective in war. Ultimately, one could imagine armies of droids confronting each other. Humans would become like generals in historical battles, watching from a safe distance. A safer, quicker form of warfare is an inevitable. Those who fail to embrace it will lose the battles of the future. No. We don’t understand artificial intelligence well enough to use it without enormous risk. So many normally tech-friendly experts are calling for killer robots to be banned. We should listen to them. Even in the idealistic situation of robots fighting robots, the smartest robots will know that the key to victory will be to destroy those who designed and control their opponents. KeywordsSingularity - The point at which something becomes infinite.

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