War is already bad enough. What happens when human combatants are replaced by machines?

The fear: Autonomous weapons will become an inevitable aspect of warfare. AI that can’t reliably tell friend from foe will strike mistaken targets, kill civilians, and attack enemies who have surrendered. Systems trained to react to threats quickly will escalate conflicts. Humans won’t be held accountable for automated atrocities.

Horror stories: While world leaders debate the ethics of fully autonomous weapons, killer robots are already on the march.

  • Last spring, the Libyan Government of National Accord reportedly used autonomous quadcopters to attack retreating insurgents. The drones identify targets using face and object recognition. They dive toward enemy combatants and detonate an onboard explosive device as they collide.
  • In January, an expert panel convened by the U.S. government advised that the military has a “moral imperative” to pursue research into autonomous weapons.
  • The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently tested swarms of autonomous air- and ground-based drones designed to locate and attack people hiding in buildings.

Quivering in your (combat) boots? Efforts to automate weaponry have a long history. Lately, AI has found its way into command and control systems. It’s not too late to establish an international ban on autonomous weapons, but the door is closing fast.

  • Leaders of 30 countries support a global ban on autonomous weapons. China, Russia, and the U.S. have blocked the effort so far.
  • Drones are relatively inexpensive, and AI systems are becoming easier to develop. There’s little to stop a determined enemy from using them.
  • The short film Slaughterbots (2017) dramatized the ease with which autonomous weapons could be used to crack down on political opponents, journalists, and dissidents.

Facing the fear: Countries need ways to defend themselves. An effective ban on autonomous weapons must start with a clear line between what is and isn’t acceptable. Machine learning engineers should play a key role in drawing it.


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