Scientist: Skynet ‘just around the corner’

London, England – Autonomous killer robots that decide who to kill are just around the corner, says Noel Sharkey, Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics at the University of Sheffield. And he claims their use is likely to make conflict and war more common and lead to a major escalation in numbers of civilian deaths.

The War on Terror launched by President GW Bush led to the accelerated development of pilotless drone aircraft (UAVs) armed with bombs and missiles. The US currently has 200 Predators and 30 Reapers and next year plans to spend around 5.5 billion dollars on unmanned combat vehicles.

“The next thing that’s coming, and this is what really scares me, are armed autonomous robots,” Sharkey told journalists at a press conference in London. “The robot will do the killing itself. This will make decision making faster and allow one person to control many robots. A single soldier could initiate a large scale attack from the air and the ground. It could happen now – the technology’s there, but technology capable of distinguishing friend from foe reliably is at least 50 years away.

“The military have a strange view of artificial intelligence based on science fiction,” says Sharkey. “Robots that can decide where to kill, who to kill and when to kill is high on all the military agenda, but the nub of it is that robots do not have the necessary discriminatory ability. They’re not bright enough to be called stupid – they can’t discriminate between civilians and non-civilians. It’s hard enough for soldiers to do that.”

As a result of some 60 drone attacks in Pakistan in the last three years, 14 al Qaida leaders have been killed, but at the cost of more than 600 civilian lives, said Sharkey, adding that the US was also paying teenagers ‘thousands of dollars’ to drop infrared tags at the homes of al Qaida suspects so that Predator drones could aim their weapons at them, but they were often thrown down anywhere, making innocent civilians liable to attack without warning.

Sharkey also described how operators of UAVs were shielded from the realities of war by being located thousands of miles away from the conflict: “These guys go home and eat dinner with their families at night. It’s a very odd way of fighting a war – it’s changing the character of war dramatically.

“If we keep on using robot weapons we’re going to put civilians at grave risk and it’s going to be much easier to start wars. The main inhibitor of wars is body bags coming home.”

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