Terminate! Scientists vow to block killer bots

Heavy metal: AI killer robots as imagined by Hollywood in the Terminator movies.

Should we ban killer robots? Thousands of artificial intelligence experts have declared they will never build autonomous army robots. Some fear an AI arms race could spark a third world war.

The Terminator movies have made almost $2 billion dollars by playing off one key theme: the rise of artificially intelligent killer robots. The films may seem like outlandish sci-fi, but scientists are terrified that something similar may happen for real.

And yesterday, 2,400 researchers signed a pledge declaring that they will not participate in building lethal autonomous weapons (robots that use artificial intelligence to identify and kill people without human control).

The pledge also calls on governments to outlaw the construction and use of killer robots. “We need to make it the international norm that autonomous weapons are not acceptable. A human must always be in the loop,” stated Professor Toby Walsh.

Among the signatories was entrepreneur Elon Musk, who previously described artificial intelligence (AI) as “more dangerous than nukes”.

Nonetheless, armies around the world are investing heavily in AI.

Just this week, Britain’s defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, unveiled plans for a new Tempest fighter plane — capable of flying unmanned, and fitted with an AI system to target enemies. South Korea has also built fully autonomous turrets.

In the US, researchers are testing intelligent combat drones which, one day, could replace regular soldiers. They are also designing autonomous missiles and aircraft.

Among military circles, the discussion is less focused on whether to build these machines in the first place, but on how much autonomy they should be given — a problem known as the “Terminator conundrum”.

However, many argue that giving a robot control over who lives and dies crosses a clear moral line.

Whether their protests will be heard remains to be seen. In 1899, world powers signed a treaty banning the use of aircraft in war because they feared the destruction it would cause. As history shows, the bloody necessities of war often trump ethics.

Should killer robots be outlawed?


Of course, some argue. The smarter AI becomes, the less control we have. It is not far-fetched to imagine killer robots turning on their masters, or killing civilians indiscriminately. Furthermore, as well as moral objections, removing humans from battlefields will encourage big states to be more aggressive — no longer deterred by the chance of losing their own men.

Not necessarily, others respond. Killer robots could actually save lives. For example, combat drones could replace soldiers in battle, and would target enemy soldiers in more precise ways — reducing the risk of collateral damage. And throughout history, humans have committed terrible war crimes, partly due to the intense stress and emotion of conflict — something machines would not be susceptible too.

You Decide

  1. Are killer robots unethical?
  2. Will there be a third world war by 2050?


  1. Humans have long anticipated robots revolutionising the world. In one minute, write down all the things you expect robots to be able to do within the next 50 years. Discuss your list with your classmates. Are all your ideas positive? Might robots have a negative impact on our lives too? Why/why not?
  2. Read Subbarao Kambhampati’s piece in The Guardian by following the link in Become An Expert. He is a pacifist but still believes that killer robots should not be banned. Summarise his key arguments into bullet points. Do you agree with him? Why/why not?

Some People Say...

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

Sun Tzu

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The researchers who signed the letter came from 36 countries, and were joined in their pledge by 160 organisations. Drones have been used in active battlefields around the world — including by Islamic State and American forces — however in each case human operators are responsible for the drone’s lethal function.
What do we not know?
If the researchers’ action will have any effect. The Wall Street Journal reports that China and America are currently engaged in “an escalating AI arms race” — both countries have increased AI investment in recent years. There is a UN conference bringing together experts on autonomous weapons scheduled for the end of August.

Word Watch

There are five films in the franchise. The Terminator was the first, released in 1984 and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. A new instalment, Terminator 6, will be released in 2019.
Lethal autonomous weapons
Also known as LAWs.
Organised by the Future of Life Institute. This is the latest in a series of similar campaigns to have launched in recent years. Last year, over 100 robotics experts sent a letter to the UN urging the body to ban killer robots.
Still only a concept aircraft, it is expected to take flight by 2035.
Autonomous turrets
The turrets have been tested on South Korea’s heavily fortified border with the North, however authorities say they operate under “self-imposed restrictions” which require human instructions to deliver fatal attacks.
The US military has been using drones for over a decade, however these are operated by humans in remote control centres. See the New York Times link for more.
Negotiated in the First Hague Conference, called by Russian Tsar Nicholas II.


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