UN takes brave stance against killer robots

The UN might not look at the sci-fi classic Terminator and see just another film. Instead, it could be a troubling vision of the near-future where murderous robots exterminate humans on-site. A report from the UN human rights investigator will urge the body to support the banning of so-called “lethal autonomous robotics” before they can be invented.

When the US Human Rights Council meets today, UN special rapporteur Christof Heyns will discuss the possibility that killer robots could cause unparalleled loss of life. The bad robots in this context are not limited to the kind with two legs and glowing eyes that travel through time. The UN will be asked to ban any weapon system that can acquire and attack targets without human intervention.

No weapons even approaching this level of autonomy exist yet, but the defense industry and governments are believed to be working toward such tech. The UN report will point to unmanned drones as the first step on the way to autonomous killing machines. Once used only for surveillance, drone aircraft are now regularly armed with weapons and used to carry out airstrikes.

Both the US and UK are are developing next-generation drone aircraft that take autonomy to the next level. The US Navy’s X-47B can pilot itself for extended periods, and even managed an unassisted aircraft carrier takeoff recently. The UK military is working on an unmanned aerial vehicle called Taranis that is capable of automatically defending itself against hostile enemy jets. South Korea has also been very open about its use of ground-based armed robots along the DMZ with the north.

The UN will eventually have to decide if weapon systems that can make the decision to use lethal force are acceptable. Many fear that doing away with the need for human intervention would be a grave mistake. Although, even if the UN officially bans such technology, enforcing such a ban is a completely different problem.

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