FORGET “you have 20 seconds to comply”. In 2016, the robots will simply track down their targets and shoot to kill, no questions asked.
This isn’t the plot of a Robocop remake but real life on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, where a killer robot could soon be deployed against coral-wrecking starfish. Called COTSbot, it is one of the world’s most advanced autonomous weapons systems, capable of selecting targets and using lethal force without any human involvement (see ““).
A starfish-killing robot may not sound like an internationally significant development, but releasing it on to the reef would cross a Rubicon. COTSbot amply demonstrates that we now have the technology to build robots that can select their own targets and autonomously decide whether to kill them. The potential applications in human affairs – from warfare to law enforcement – are obvious.
This issue is rising up the international agenda. In April last year, the UN spent“lethal autonomous weapons systems” – the second such meeting in as many years. A third week of discussions will be held this April.
Up to now the talks have been what pressure group Campaign to Stop Killer Robots describes as “aim low and go slow” – a talking shop that takes no decisions other than to talk some more.
But there are signs that the discussions are becoming more urgent. Nine nations have called for a ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems, and many others have stated that humans must retain ultimate control of robots.
Against this background, COTSbot is a good thing – a chance to test claims about autonomy, accuracy, safety, hackability and so on in a relatively benign environment. It also offers an opportunity to demonstrate that autonomous robots can do good as well as bad. But the real significance is that it shows that Robocop is getting ever closer to reality, and it is time for the world to decide how to respond.
This article appeared in print under the headline “Who pulls the trigger?”
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