ISIL and rogue states could get their hands on ‘killer robots’, experts warn

The ‘genie is out of the bottle’ when it comes to autonomous drones that could kill at will on the battlefield

In the future, drones such as the Predator could become fully autonomous. Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP Photo
In the future, drones such as the Predator could become fully autonomous. Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP Photo

The terrifying prospect of terrorists and rogue states such as North Korea obtaining ‘killer robots’ and the artificial intelligence behind them is frightening possible in the near future, a House of Lords committee was told on Thursday.

Alvin Wilby, vice-president of research at the French defence company Thales, which describes itself as “a leader in the fast growing market of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)” and supplies drones and other military equipment to countries across the globe including the UAE and the UK, said the “genie is out of the bottle” about the technology behind them.

He also warned the committee that the use of swarms of scaled-down versions of the larger drones that are used in surveillance and attack roles at the moment, usually from high altitudes, could be possible. Such swarms would have little control from humans, and could be entirely autonomous.

“The technological challenge of scaling it up to swarms and things like that doesn’t need any inventive step,” Mr Wilby told the Lords Artificial Intelligence committee.

“It’s just a question of time and scale and I think that’s an absolute certainty that we should worry about.”

The US and Chinese are already testing swarming technology, exploring the possibility of sending waves of UAVs into battle to overrun targets or to bring down attacking enemy forces.

Noel Sharkey, emeritus professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at University of Sheffield, warned the committee that “very bad copies” of drones which didn’t have safeguards built into them to stop them from being used in indiscriminate attacks, could end up in the hands of terrorist groups such as ISIL.

There also the worrying prospect that “authoritarian dictators getting a hold of these, who won’t be held back by their soldiers not wanting to kill the population,” he told the Lords Artificial Intelligence committee, invoking the spectre of someone like Kim Jong-Un getting hold of the technology.

Professor Sharkey pointed out that ISIL had already used remote-controlled drones as weapons, and that once the technology became so advanced that fully autonomous weapons were deployed on battlefield, it would only be a matter of time before they could fall into the wrong hands.

“I don’t want to live in a world where war can happen in a few seconds accidentally and a lot of people die before anybody stops it,” said Prof Sharkey, who is a spokesman for the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

He argued that there needed to be a situation which “put new international restraints on it”, something he was pressed for at the United Nations as a member of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control.

Updated: December 2, 2017 10:21 AM


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