Last week, the UN published a report outlining the case for banning lethal autonomous robots, or, as the tech press prefers, "killer robots." Many of those articles about the report led with an image of the T-100, that villainous murder machine from the Terminator movies. Because in the popular imagination, autonomous killing machines are a terrifying product of the distant dystopian future where humanity's poor decisions have allowed all hell to break loose.
While the report takes pains to note that sophisticated robo-warriors with AI (and presumably heavy Austrian accents) are still a long way off, the document nonetheless details the alarming number of weapons of war that are already at least semi-autonomous—and are in use today. Which is easily more frightening than Arnold Schwarzeneggar in biker garb.
So, as a reminder that autonomous killing machines are not the stuff of far-off apocalyptic fantasy, here's a list, in the UN's words, of "robotic systems with various degrees of autonomy and lethality" that are currently in use. As in, right now.
The US Phalanx system for Aegis-class cruisers automatically detects, tracks and engages anti-air warfare threats such as anti-ship missiles and aircraft.
Image: US Army
The US Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar (C-RAM) system can automatically destroy incoming artillery, rockets and mortar rounds.
Israel‟s Harpy is a “Fire-and-Forget” autonomous weapon system designed to detect, attack and destroy radar emitters.
Image: BAE (Yes, this is the manufacturer's preferred promotional image)
The United Kingdom Taranis jet-propelled combat drone prototype can autonomously search, identify and locate enemies but can only engage with a target when authorized by mission command. It can also defend itself against enemy aircraft.
The Northrop Grumman X-47B is a fighter-size drone prototype commissioned by the US Navy to demonstrate autonomous launch and landing capability on aircraft carriers and navigate autonomously.
The Samsung Techwin surveillance and security guard robots, deployed in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, detect targets through infrared sensors. They are currently operated by humans but have an “automatic mode."
Most of these semi-autonomous robots and defense systems still require that humans be "in the loop" to operate at optimal person-killing capacity. But they make numerous "decisions" about navigation and targeting that can be considered autonomous. And it seems that a few, like the Harpy, the Aegis, and the Taranis could feasibly "decide" to kill humans the way they are currently being operated.
So we're edging further across that blurry threshold between deciding how best to use advanced machinery to kill and that advanced machinery deciding how best to do our killing for us. Lethal autonomous robots are already here; they're just being used in limited, relatively low-profile operations. Which is precisely why the UN is concerned: this is what the early dawn of robot warfare looks like.