'Autonomous weapons', which could be ready within a decade, pose grave risk to international law, claim activists
Robot warfare and autonomous weapons, the next step from unmanned drones, are already being worked on by scientists and will be available within the decade, said Dr Noel Sharkey, a leading robotics and artificial intelligence expert and professor at Sheffield University. He believes that development of the weapons is taking place in an effectively unregulated environment, with little attention being paid to moral implications and international law.
The Stop the Killer Robots campaign will be launched in April at the House of Commons and includes many of the groups that successfully campaigned to have international action taken against cluster bombs and landmines. They hope to get a similar global treaty against autonomous weapons.
"These things are not science fiction; they are well into development," said Sharkey. "The research wing of the Pentagon in the US is working on the X47B [unmanned plane] which has supersonic twists and turns with a G-force that no human being could manage, a craft which would take autonomous armed combat anywhere in the planet.
"In America they are already training more drone pilots than real aircraft pilots, looking for young men who are very good at computer games. They are looking at swarms of robots, with perhaps one person watching what they do."
"The idea is that it's a machine that will find a target, decide if it is the right target and then kill it. No human involvement. Article 36 in the Geneva Convention says that any new weapon has to take into account whether it can distinguish and discriminate between combatant and civilian, but the problem here is that an autonomous robot is not a weapon until you clip on the gun."
At present, Sharkey says, there is no mechanism in a robot's "mind" to distinguish between a child holding up a sweet and an adult pointing a gun. "We are struggling to get them to distinguish between a human being and a car. We have already seen utter incompetence in the use of drones, operators making a lot of mistakes and not being properly supervised."
"Killer robots loom over our future if we do not take action to ban them now," she said. "The six Nobel peace laureates involved in the Nobel Women's Initiative fully support the call for an international treaty to ban fully autonomous weaponised robots."