The Pentagon Is Exploring Robots That Kill on Their Own — What Happens Next?


The technology that is already driving some of us around and packing Amazon shipments may soon be in charge of killing the United States' enemies. 

The Pentagon is currently exploring the use of robots that can deploy weapons without a human directive. The project aims to develop a "third offset strategy" that would put automated machines and robots on the battlefield, according to National Defense Magazine. One of the most notable use cases the Department of Defense is looking into is whether a robot pre-programmed with a specific mission could still fulfill its duties even if it's disconnected from a human overseer.

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"These are hard questions and a lot of people outside of us tech guys are thinking about it, talking about it, engaging in what we can and can't do. That's important. We need to understand and know that it doesn't necessarily need to happen, but we also have to put the options on the table because we are the worst-case scenario guys," said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research Melissa L. Flagg at the National Defense Industrial Association's Ground Robotics Capabilities conference in Springfield, Virginia.


Debate around killer robots has been circulating for years. Drone strikes, which are human-operated, have been criticized for murdering innocent bystanders.  But autonomous robots capable of independently making decisions to kill is a far scarier proposition for some. 

"Lethally autonomous killer robots would take many forms, " said fiction author Daniel Suarez in a 2013 Ted Talk. "They're very quickly becoming a reality." For instance, the demilitarized zone between South Korea and North Korea has long been home to autonomous sniper stations. The decision-making guns can detect anyone within a mile and quarter radius and fire with or without a human command.  

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Suarez says what is most concerning about the proliferation of autonomous warfare is that eventually anyone might be able to get a hold of this technology and even rip off military designs. That would ultimately make it difficult to tell who or what is responsible for a given attack. Furthermore, he thinks nations which have more advanced technology might be the most "vulnerable" to these autonomous killing machines because of the vast amounts of public data available on their citizens via social media and the web. 

Others are more concerned by the moral implications of technology determining the lives of people at war. 

Theories aside, Human Rights Watch has already called for a ban on fully autonomous weaponized robots. "It is questionable that fully autonomous weapons would be capable of meeting international humanitarian law standards, including the rules of distinction, proportionality, and military necessity, while they would threaten the fundamental right to life and principle of human dignity," the organization writes.  

The DoD project is still in its early stages. In the meantime, the Marine Corps Robotics and Autonomous Systems team is releasing a paper in May that will guide further exploration and investment in this area.