Dhaka Courier

Killer robots are coming

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Mary Wareham speaking at the press conference

With the ongoing advancement in science and technology, a renewed hope is now placed on robotics that would ease the burden of hard work for humans and also help filling up the vacuum that has been created in many societies due to the shortage of human resources triggered by a declining population. Robots replacing humans – the idea sounds noble; though not for societies that are burdened with swelling population. Yet, all societies are eagerly welcoming the scientific innovation that sooner or later going to help solving many of the problems that advanced nations are facing today and which are yet to unfold in the development backyards of the world. So, the advancement in robotics is mostly welcomed everywhere with the hope of making our world a relatively better place for all human beings.

However, few of us are aware of the potential dangers that are associated with robotic innovations. The danger lies in human ideas of how and for what purpose robots are to be used and deployed. Unfortunately, like all other scientific and technological advancements preceding the development of robots, this particular field too has been silently hijacked by the military machines in some of the advanced societies that are now trying to develop autonomous weapons that would take the crucial decision who in this world lives and who dies. A frightening prospect for humans, no doubt, as it sounds more like Frankenstein being brought back to our living surroundings from the pages of fiction.

Robots equipped with artificial intelligence are being developed in some countries and experts are now saying that once these killer machines turn operational; our world is never going to be the same again. Since those machines are obviously going to lack such inherently human qualities like compassion and rational judgment based on taking into consideration multiple factors; qualities that play crucial role in making complex ethical choices over selecting and destroying a target, there is increasing concern that robots might get involved in systematic destruction of a total population or subjugation of an entire race or nation on behalf of governments operating such machines. Moreover, lack of any legal binding that would stop anything like this happening is also helping those nations to bypass such international mechanisms that are in place to put an end to the use of some other evil weaponry like land mines or nuclear arms.  Hence, a group of scientists along with leading thinkers and public intellectuals have already started lobbying for a ban of weapons systems of greater technical sophistication that would be designed to target humans.

More than 100 founders of robotics and artificial intelligence companies last year signed an open letter calling for a worldwide ban on killer robots under the supervision of the United Nations. The letter stated that once developed, these weapons will create a scenario where armed conflicts are to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at a timescale faster than humans can comprehend. It also warned world leaders that despots and terrorists getting hold of such weapons can easily use them against innocent populations.

This was not the first call asking world leaders to take specific action for putting an end to the use of artificial intelligence in weaponry systems and this was also not the last one. The open letter was followed by calls from various non-governmental bodies. Some of those even suggested imposing a pre-emptive ban on the development, production and use of lethal autonomous weapons. And even before that, a letter released in 2015 at the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI) in Buenos Aires, warned world of dangers posed by autonomous weapons. Signed by thousands of researchers working at universities and advanced research laboratories around the world, this particular letter was also endorsed by such leading world figures like British physicist Stephen Hawking, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Noam Chomsky, the leading public intellectual of our time.

Despite such calls from various quarters echoing the danger that looms over humanity, the leading developers of autonomous weapons seem not to be bothered at all and they keep moving on with research and development as business as usual. An autonomous missile that the United States is now developing will use software to choose between targets. In other words, the missile can decide on its own which target to hit and destroy. Russia, on the other hand, is showcasing tanks that do not need soldiers inside for combat. Few other countries too are not sitting idle. Six countries that have been identified by various campaign groups as being at the forefront of developing weapons systems with significant autonomy in selecting and attacking targets are the United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, Israel and South Korea.

29 countries, on the other hand, are calling for a prohibition of such weapons. Japan, despite being vocal on various disarmament issues, is yet to join the group opposing killer robots and various advocacy groups find Japanese position to be self-contradictory and ambiguous.

Speaking at a press conference last week in Tokyo prior to addressing a symposium on “Human Control over Autonomous Weapons Systems” convened by the International Committee of the Red Cross, Mary Wareham, arms advocacy director at Human Rights, Watch, outlined the efforts being taken by various countries and groups for retaining meaningful human control over the use of force and urged Japan to cooperate with like-minded nations to open negotiations on a treaty that would lead to banning killer robots. She has blamed Russia and US for preventing the adaptation of any possible regulatory action that would force countries around the world to impose ban on such weapons. While the United States rejects any reference of “human control” over the use of force, Russia is claiming that any discussion over the potential dangers of lethal autonomous weapons’ systems is premature. So, with main actors trying to keep ignoring calls for banning weapons with artificial intelligence, the show keeps going, and thus turning the world into a much more dangerous place where robots soon might have a free hand over the lives of humans.

(Tokyo, September 8, 2019)

  • Killer robots are coming
  • Vol 36
  • Monzurul Huq
  • Issue 10
  • DhakaCourier

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