The Case Against Robots With License to Kill

Autonomous drones do not yet have the capability to choose a target and fire a weapon on their own. But that capability could come online within a couple of decades. Click to enlarge this image. US Air Force/Handout/Digital/Corbis
US Air Force/Handout/Digital/Corbis

A new Human Rights Watch report calls for a ban on autonomous "killer robots."

Battlefield drones and robots capable of choosing their targets and firing without any human oversight won't arrive for a few decades, experts say. But a new Human Rights Watch report calls for an international ban on fully autonomous "killer robots" before they ever become a part of military arsenals around the world.

The thousands of drones and robots that the U.S. military already has deployed alongside troops are all controlled remotely by human operators, who can take responsibility if the machines accidentally injure or kill civilians. Fully autonomous robots capable of choosing targets and firing weapons on their own may come online within the next 20 or 30 years, if not sooner.

PHOTOS: Run! Top 5 Robots to the Rescue

"Giving machines the power to decide who lives and dies on the battlefield would take technology too far," said Steve Goose, the Arms Division director at Human Rights Watch. "Human control of robotic warfare is essential to minimizing civilian deaths and injuries."

"Fully autonomous weapons" operating without oversight won't have the artificial intelligence, human judgment or empathy necessary to distinguish between armed soldiers and cowering civilians in murky battlefield conditions, Human Rights Watch says. Its joint report with Harvard Law School's International Human Rights Clinic argues robots could never follow rules of international humanitarian law.

The report released on Nov. 19 suggests the following to stop the "killer robots" future:

- Ban development, production and use of fully autonomous weapons through an international agreement.

- Adopt national laws to ban the creation and use of fully autonomous weapons.

- Keep watch on technologies and components that could lead to fully autonomous weapons.

- Make a professional code of conduct to oversee research and development of autonomous robotic weapons.

The report also highlights concerns about the possible use of fully autonomous robots by dictators to brutally suppress their civilian populations, and about the easier decision to go to war when leaders aren't worried about troop casualties.

Robots may lack human empathy, but history already has shown that human soldiers are capable of committing the world's worst atrocities despite their supposed humanity. Ronald Arkin, a robotics researcher at Georgia Tech, even has argued that fully autonomous robots could make the battlefield safer: They wouldn't fall prey to the fatigue that can result in misidentifying targets, or to the anger that could lead to sadistic abuse of prisoners and civilians.

ANALYSIS: Should Robots Be Blamed for Battlefield Mistakes?

The U.S. military spends about $6 billion each year on developing and deploying thousands of drones and robots. Its huge arsenal includes ground robots rolling or walking along under direct human control, Reaper drones that can fly parts of their mission without human control, and robot boats capable of firing missiles.

Automatic defense weapons such as the U.S. Navy's Phalanx turret can fire thousands of rounds at incoming missiles without a human order and with only the barest human supervision. Israel's "Iron Dome" defense detects incoming threats and asks human operators to make a split-second decision on whether to give the command to fire missiles that can intercept enemy rockets and artillery shells.

Both Israel and South Korea also have deployed robot sentry turrets that could, in theory, operate on automatic mode.

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