Nations Must Address Threat of Robotic Weaponry 'by 2018'

  • Panel at WEF included BAE Systems Plc chairman Sir Roger Carr
  • Shrinking size of autonomous drones highlighted as a concern

With the possibility of a future world war fought by autonomous robots lacking a human moral compass, a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, urged global leaders to address the threat soon.

“We have a fairly short time horizon to act,” said Stuart Russell, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley. “If within the next two years the main parties aren’t drawn into serious negotiations ... it may be too late.”

Mention “killer robots” and most people think of something from James Cameron’s 1984 blockbuster "The Terminator" -- slow moving, heavy, inaccurate machines that are no match for what is coming, said Russell. “We are talking about systems that weigh less than an ounce, can fly faster than a person can run, and can blow holes in their heads with one gram of explosive and can be launched in the millions.”

Challenging the laws of war

Last year, more than 90 countries met to discuss the challenges raised by autonomous weapons systems and another meeting is planned for April, according to an organization called the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a serious group of academics and NGOs despite the amusing name. The Global Risks Report 2016 published by the World Economic Forum named autonomous weapons, capable of identifying targets and deciding to open fire without human intervention, as “increasingly feasible, and challenging the laws of war.”

Sir Roger Carr, chairman of BAE Systems Plc, said that while weaponry is growing increasingly advanced, there is “the common denominator of it only being unleashed by a human being and that is still the line in the sand.”

One reason autonomous weaponry isn’t being taken very seriously is that it feels more like a video game or an action movie, he added. “It is potentially lethal in a different way, but it doesn’t feel like that.”

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