Drones will leave humans ‘utterly defenceless’

Humans could be left “utterly defenceless” by small and agile flying robots that think for themselves and are designed to kill, a leading US computer science expert has warned.

The deadly drones are the likely “endpoint” of the current technological march towards lethal autonomous weapons systems (Laws), according to Professor Stuart Russell from the University of California at Berkeley.

Such weapons, whose decisions about which targets to select and destroy are determined by artificial intelligence (AI) rather than humans, could feasibly be deployed within the next decade, said the professor.

He added: “The stakes are high: Laws have been described as the third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear arms.”

Writing in a comment article published in the journal Nature, Professor Russell argues that the capabilities of Laws will be limited more by the physical constraints of range, speed and payload, than any deficiencies in their controlling AI systems.

He said: “As flying robots become smaller, their manoeuvrability increases and their ability to be targeted decreases. They have a shorter range, yet they must be large enough to carry a lethal payload — perhaps a 1g-shaped charge to puncture the human cranium.

“Despite the limits imposed by physics, one can expect platforms deployed in the millions, the agility and lethality of which will leave humans utterly defenceless. This is not a desirable future.”

Prof Russell called on his peers — AI and robotics scientists — and professional scientific organisations to take a position on Laws, just as physicists did over nuclear weapons and biologists over the use of disease agents in warfare.

“Doing nothing is a vote in favour of continued development and deployment,” he cautioned.

Some have argued for an international treaty limiting autonomous weapons or banning them altogether.

But the three countries at the forefront of the technology — the US, UK and Israel — all insist they have internal weapons review processes that ensure compliance with international law, making such a treaty unnecessary, said Prof Russell.

The UN has held a number of meetings on Laws under the auspices of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva.

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