Autonomous weapons experts sounded the alarm last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, cautioning that unless governments act to limit these weapons’ risks, it may be too late.
Autonomous weapons haven’t surfaced in the mainstream but loom on the horizon as the technology behind them is young, but rapidly advancing. Based on existing technology, the weapons could be able to independently find and kill enemies, so that a country doesn’t put its humans in harm’s way. The weapons may arrive in a variety of forms, including small drones or robot soldiers.
“Being attacked by an army of Terminators is a piece of cake when compared to being attacked by this kind of weapon,” said Stuart Russell, a computer science professor at the University of California-Berkeley. “We’re [talking] about systems that weigh less than an ounce, that can fly faster than a person can run, can blow holes in their heads with one gram of shape-charge explosive, and can be launched in the millions.”
Russell and Angela Kane, a senior fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, warned that time is running out to prevent us from opening Pandora’s Box. They estimate that the problem needs to be addressed within two years to prevent a global arms race toward autonomous weapons. The fear is that autonomous weapons could become akin to a new, more powerful AK-47 — an affordable, easily obtained weapon of global destruction. These weapons wouldn’t require rare and expensive materials, which help to limit access to nuclear weapons. Russell and Kane called for scientists, governments and the artificial intelligence industry to convene quickly.
“Do we really want to put the power to wipe out everyone in New York City in the hands of individuals who just need to be able to afford to buy those weapons?,” said Russell, who described autonomous weapons being capable of of targeting individuals based on their age or style of clothing.
That is one reason experts are calling for an autonomous weapons convention similar to what the world did to address biological and chemical weapons. Russell’s group, the Future of Life Institute, hopes a ban on the weapons will head off a global arms race to develop autonomous weapons.
So far little has been done to address the risk.
“You have a very glacial pace of international negotiations. They haven’t even really started,” said Kane, who previously was a U.N. representative for disarmament affairs, and struggled to get states to tackle the issue. “The pace at looking at this issue in terms of international law is far behind [the technology].”
Roger Carr, chairman of weapons manufacturer BAE Systems, who joined the panel discussion in Davos, cautioned that governments are in over their heads when it comes to the cutting edge of technology.
“The people who have the job of making the judgment as to whether it should be something we legislate for, very often do not have a full understanding of where we are in the process, and the risk, and how close it is to becoming a reality,” Carr said.
While some may take solace in the fact that autonomous weapons aren’t fully developed, Russell is concerned that some bad actors won’t care.
“Do you think ISIS needs their drones to be that reliable in discriminating civilians from soldiers? No,” Russell said, “80 percent is pretty good for military equipment. So I think that would be very easily achievable with present-day technology.”