Killer Robots : The Coming Reality

By Darryl Mason

If you’re planning to go see the killer robot action of Terminator Salvation at the cinema, and you don’t want to see too much of what unfolds in the movie, probably best not to watch the below 4 minute long video capsule of just about the entire flick, bar the “surprise” ending.

If you have no intention of seeing Terminator Salvation at the cinema, or on DVD, because you think killer military robot movies that rip off some of the best ideas of Philip K Dick without bothering to give any credit are stupid and bereft of originality, then your prejudices will be confirmed :

It’s very interesting to note that when the first Terminator movie was released and found its monumental worldwide audience on video in the mid-1980s, the idea of turning robots into ethics-and-morality-free killers for the world’s military was pure science fiction for most, even though armed robots were already well under development in the research divisions of the world’s biggest military contractors.

Today, the United States has a fleet of 7000 drones (some armed) and more than 12,000 “unarmed ground vehicles” deployed in its combat zones. This is a robot army. It’s not science fiction. It’s real. Armed robots are already fighting our wars. And the US is not alone by any stretch in trying to remove the human soldier from dangerous, expensive, future war deployments. Put it this way, dead human soldiers are expensive, robots in comparison are cheap :
More than 43 countries are developing military robotics, including Israel, Iran, China, Pakistan and Russia, as well as Britain and Australia.
The world is on the brink of a “robotics revolution” in military combat that will have profound social, psychological, political and ethical effects, says a leading US defence analyst.

“We are living through the end of humankind’s 5000-year-old monopoly on the fighting of war … The robots of today are the first technologies to change the ‘who’ of war, not just the ‘how’ of war…”

With robotics transforming the nature of warfare, it was risky, he warned, to “make grand commitments before you figure out where things are headed”.

Autonomous robots in the battlefield will soon, it is claimed, be making the all important decision to open fire on their own. There will be no 22 year old raised and trained on video games piloting that Hellfire equipped drone over Waziristan from a comfy chair in Nevada, the flying killer robot will soon find its own targets, and make the decision for itself to kill another few dozen poor brown people.

Will we see a day when a software programmer is held responsible for the slaughter of civilians when flying killer robots kill two ‘terrorists’ but a dozen women and children as well?

If no human, or software creator or defence contractor is directly responsible for the civilian-slaughtering decisions made by its robotic army, and stealthy flying assassins, then killer robots will become the front line soldiers of all future wars fought by the West : 

The unmanned bombers that frequently cause unintended civilian casualties in Pakistan are a step toward an even more lethal generation of robotic hunters-killers that operate with limited, if any, human control.The Defense Department is financing studies of autonomous, or self-governing, armed robots that could find and destroy targets on their own. On-board computer programs, not flesh-and-blood people, would decide whether to fire their weapons.

Autonomous armed robotic systems probably will be operating by 2020, according to John Pike, an expert on defense and intelligence matters and the director of the security Web site in Washington.

Human operators thousands of miles away in Nevada, using satellite communications, control the current generation of missile-firing robotic aircraft, known as Predators and Reapers. Armed ground robots, such as the Army’s Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System, also require a human decision-maker before they shoot.

Many Navy warships carry the autonomous, rapid-fire Phalanx system, which is designed to shoot down enemy missiles or aircraft that have penetrated outer defenses without waiting for a human decision-maker.


Some people have high hopes for the most brutal and heartless killing system ever devised by man :

“Robots must be constrained to adhere to the same laws as humans or they should not be permitted on the battlefield…”


Yeah, like that’s going to happen.

But could a killer robot be developed that is more empathetically human than a flesh and blood human?


Arkin contends that a properly designed robot could behave with greater restraint than human soldiers in the heat of battle and cause fewer casualties.

“Robots can be built that do not exhibit fear, anger, frustration or revenge, and that ultimately behave in a more humane manner than even human beings in these harsh circumstances,” he wrote.


A British critic of autonomous armed robots says the idea that robots can be ‘taught’ to tell the difference between enemy and civilian is the stuff of pure fantasy :


“….it’s doomed to failure at present because no robots or AI (artificial intelligence) systems could discriminate between a combatant and an innocent. That sensing ability just does not exist.”

Selmer Bringsjord, an artificial intelligence expert at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., is worried, too.

“I’m concerned. The stakes are very high,” Bringsjord said. “If we give robots the power to do nasty things, we have to use logic to teach them not to do unethical things. If we can’t figure this out, we shouldn’t build any of these robots.”


But they’re already being built. China and the United States are expected to fire up mass production lines of military robots in the next twelve months. Humans are too expensive, and too responsible. They also have families, and insurance for the warzoned is expensive.

Killer robots are cheap, and they don’t cry, and they don’t come down with PTSD, and they don’t go home and write books about all the innocent people they accidentally killed, or were ordered to kill.

It will take years for international law to catch up with the use of autonomous killer robots in the warzones of the world. By then, of course, they will be everywhere, every side, all sides, will have them. Trying to shut down or wind back the prroduction lines of ground and aerial killer robots will be as impossible a grand task as trying to recall all the AK-47s circulating in Africa.

Killer robots have left the pages of Philip K Dick and a thousand other science fiction authors, and stepped out of the cinema screens and entered our reality.

If I learned anything about dealing with killer robots from the Terminator movies or those hundreds of luridly covered, tattered old science fiction paperbacks, is it this :

You Have To Hit Them Hard.

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