Killer robots


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Artificial intelligence and military weapons continuously become more connected.

Thompson Wakefield, Staff Writer

If you are older than ten and live in the US, you have probably heard the catchphrase, “come with me if you want to live.” This famous line comes from the movie series Terminator, a set of dystopian films about self-aware AI that aim to eliminate humankind. The movies are rather cheesy, but as each year passes it seems we’re getting closer to the idea of killer robots. Although they may not look like humans and speak in thick German accents, lethal autonomous weapons are being developed in countries all over the world, including the US, China, and Russia. These weapons are defined by the Congressional Research Service as “a special class of weapon systems that use sensor suites and computer algorithms to independently identify a target and employ an onboard weapon system to engage and destroy the target without manual human control of the system.” In layman’s terms, LAWs are weapons that can operate and kill without human control (i.e. The Terminator). The use and legality of these weapons has become a hotly debated topic, with both sides largely agreeing that preventing death should be the first priority.Other than killer robots looking cool, those in favor of allowing the development of LAWs have differing reasons. One popular belief is that over time, these weapons will replace human soldiers and therefore limit the amount of people that die fighting in a war. A war with only machines is a convincing argument considering the tendency of countries to value their soldiers and veterans so highly, but it assumes a few things about robot war. Firstly, it imagines a war in which LAWs are fighting each other, rather than their creators as we see in The Terminator. Secondly, it assumes that only soldiers die in war, which is of course not true when it comes to these large weapons (atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Middle Eastern drone strikes, etc.). Thirdly, it presumes that LAWs will replace soldiers, rather than just add to the military. 

Another reason those in favor of development give is that LAWs will allow small states to protect themselves from imperialist powers. The argument is that small states have relatively little resources, so they can only defend themselves with human soldiers and less advanced weaponry. LAWs, however, are cheap enough that these states will be able to develop them and level the playing field. According to a naval war college joint operations paper, “depending on the level of artificial intelligence, unmanned systems are one‐third the cost of manned platforms and cost two‐thirds as much to operate.” Although it is true that LAWs are not the most expensive weapons to make, critics claim that they will in no way guarantee protection from imperialism and that small state LAWs will never compete in terms of numbers and efficiency with big state LAWs. In fact, some people assert that LAWs will even cause more imperialism as it gives imperialist states a much easier way to conquer, especially considering that only big states are developing these weapons at the moment. 

Whether LAWs are a net good for the world or not is not the end of the debate. Figuring out how to prevent the development of these weapons is also important, with many believing that it is impossible or unnecessary. During the Cold War, mutually assured destruction prevented the US and the Soviet Union from firing nuclear warheads at one another, despite being strong adversaries with incredible weapons. The same logic could be applied to LAWs, meaning that a ban would be unnecessary because no state would ever actually use them. Additionally, enforcing such a ban seems unrealistic when looking at the current state of world affairs. Countries such as China, North Korea, Russia and Iran are continually growing suspicious of the US’ intentions and vice versa. Conversely, some in favor of banning LAWs cite the United Nations as a one-world government like organization that has the power to enforce a ban if necessary.

Perhaps killer robots are not the most serious threat to humanity currently, but the future creeps closer everyday. States are constantly developing and improving weapons to cover all their bases and what is more intimidating than a real life Terminator? The debate on LAWs goes much further than just saving soldiers, imperialism, and ban effectiveness; many different people from all walks of life offer their own unique perspective on the issue. With every debate, it is important to listen to any and all sides before making a decision.