An RQ-4 Global Hawk drone flies over mountains and desert.
Ask one technologist and he or she might say that lethal autonomous weapons — machines that can select and destroy targets without human intervention — are the next step in modern warfare, a natural evolution beyond today's remotely operated drones and unmanned ground vehicles. Others will decry such systems as an abomination and a threat to International Humanitarian Law (IHL), or the Law of Armed Conflict.
The U.N. Human Rights Council has, for now, called for a moratorium on the development of killer robots. But activist groups like the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC) want to see this class of weapon completely banned. The question is whether it is too early — or too late — for a blanket prohibition. Indeed, depending how one defines "autonomy," such systems are already in use.
From stones to arrows to ballistic missiles, human beings have always tried to curtail their direct involvement in combat, said Ronald Arkin, a computer scientist at Georgia Institute of Technology. Military robots are just more of the same. With autonomous systems, people no longer do the targeting, but they still program, activate and deploy these weapons. [7 Technologies That Transformed Warfare]
"There will always be a human in the kill chain with these lethal autonomous systems unless you're making the case that they can go off and declare war like the Cylons," said Arkin, referring to the warring cyborgs from "Battlestar Galactica." He added, "I enjoy science-fiction as much as the next person, but I don't think that's what this debate should be about at this point in time."
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