Leaders from Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School"s International Human Rights Clinic last week issued a dire warning that nations around the world haven"t been doing enough to ban the development of autonomous weapons -- so-called "killer robots."
The groups issued a joint report that calls for a complete ban on these systems before such weapons begin to make their way to military arsenals and it becomes too late to act.
Other groups, including Amnesty International, joined in those urgent calls for a treaty to ban such weapons systems, in advance of this week"s meeting of the United Nations" CCW Group of Governmental Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems in Geneva.
This week"s gathering is the second such event. Last year"s meeting marked the first time delegates from around the world discussed the global ramifications of killer robot technologies.
"Killer robots are no longer the stuff of science fiction," said Rasha Abdul Rahim, Amnesty International"s advisor on artificial intelligence and human rights. "From artificially intelligent drones to automated guns that can choose their own targets, technological advances in weaponry are far outpacing international law."
Last year"s first meeting did result in many nations agreeing to ban the development of weapons that could identify and fire on targets without meaningful human intervention. To date, 26 nations have called for an outright killer robot ban, including Austria, Brazil and Egypt. China has called for a new CCW protocol that would prohibit the use of fully autonomous weapons systems.
However, the United States, France, Great Britain, Israel, South Korea and Russia have registered opposition to creating any legally binding prohibitions of such weapons, or the technologies behind them.
Public opinion is mixed, based on a Brookings Institution survey that was conducted last week.
Thirty percent of adult Americans supported the development of artificial intelligence technologies for use in warfare, it found, with 39 percent opposed and 32 percent unsure.
However, support for the use of AI capabilities in weapons increased significantly if American adversaries were known to be developing the technology, the poll also found.
In that case, 45 percent of respondents in the survey said they would support U.S. efforts to develop AI weapons, versus 25 who were opposed and 30 percent who were unsure.
The science of killing has been taken to a new technological level -- and many are concerned about loss of human control.
"Autonomous weapons are another example of military technology outpacing the ability to regulate it," said Mike Blades, research director at Frost & Sullivan.
In the mid-19th century Richard Gatling developed the first successful rapid fire weapon in his eponymous Gatling gun, a design that led to modern machine guns. When it was used on the battlefields of the First World War 100 years ago, military leaders were utterly unable to comprehend its killing potential. The result was horrific trench warfare. Tens of millions were killed over the course of the four-year conflict.
One irony is that Gatling said that he created his weapon as a way to reduce the size of armies, and in turn reduce the number of deaths from combat. However, he also thought such a weapon could show the futility of warfare.
Autonomous weapons have a similar potential to reduce the number of soldiers in harm"s way -- but as with the Gatling gun or the World War I era machine gun, new devices could increase the killing potential of a handful of soldiers.
Modern military arsenals already can take out vast numbers of people.
"One thing to understand is that autonomy isn"t actually increasing ability to destroy the enemy. We can already do that with plenty of weapons," Blades told TechNewsWorld.
"This is actually a way to destroy the enemy without putting our people in harm"s way -- but with that ability there are moral obligations," he added. "This is a place where we haven"t really been, and have to tread carefully."Destructiveness Debate
There have been other technological weapons advances, from the poison gas that was used in the trenches of World War I a century ago to the atomic bomb that was developed during the Second World War. Each in turn became an issue for debate.
The potential horrors that autonomous weapons could unleash now are receiving the same level of concern and attention.
"Autonomous weapons are the biggest threat since nuclear weapons, and perhaps even bigger," warned Stuart Russell, professor of computer science and Smith-Zadeh professor of engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.
"Because they do not require individual human supervision, autonomous weapons are potentially scalable weapons of mass destruction. Essentially unlimited numbers can be launched by a small number of people," he told TechNewsWorld.
"This is an inescapable logical consequence of autonomy," Russell added, "and as a result, we expect that autonomous weapons will reduce human security at the individual, local, national and international levels."
A notable concern with small autonomous weapons is that their use could result in far less physical destruction than nuclear weapons or other WMDs might cause, which could make them almost "practical" in comparison.
Autonomous weapons "leave property intact and can be applied selectively to eliminate only those who might threaten an occupying force," Russell pointed out."Cheap, Effective, Unattributable"
As with poison gas or technologically advanced weapons, autonomous weapons can be a force multiplier. The Gatling gun could outperform literally dozens of soldiers. In the case of autonomous weapons, one million potentially lethal units could be carried in a single container truck or cargo aircraft. Yet these weapons systems might require only two or three human operators rather than two or three million.
"Such weapons would be able to hunt for and eliminate humans in towns and cities, even inside buildings," said Russell. "They would be cheap, effective, unattributable, and easily proliferated once the major powers initiate mass production and the weapons become available on the international arms market."
This could give a small nation, rogue state or even a lone actor the ability to do considerable harm. Development of these weapons could even usher in a new arms race among powers of all sizes.
For this reason the cries to ban them before they are even developed have been increasing in volume, especially as development of the core technologies -- AI and machine learning -- for civilian purposes advances. They easily could be militarized to create weapons.
"Fully autonomous weapons should be discussed now, because due to the rapid development of autonomous technology, they could soon become a reality," said Bonnie Docherty, senior researcher in the arms division at Human Rights Watch, and one of the authors of the recent paper that called for a ban on killer robots.
"Once they enter military arsenals, they will likely proliferate and be used," she told TechNewsWorld.
"If countries wait, the weapons will no longer be a matter for the future," Docherty added.
Many scientists and other experts already have been heeding the call to ban autonomous weapons, and thousands of AI experts this summer signed a pledge not to assist with the development of the systems for military purposes.
The pledge is similar to the Manhattan Project scientists" calls not to use the first atomic bomb. Instead, many of the scientists who worked to develop the bomb suggested that the military merely provide a demonstration of its capability rather than use it on a civilian target.
The strong opposition to autonomous weapons today "shows that fully autonomous weapons offend the public conscience, and that it is time to take action against them," observed Docherty.Pressing the Panic Button?
However, the calls by the various groups arguably could be a moot point.
Although the United States has not agreed to limit the development of autonomous weapons, research efforts actually have been focused more on systems that utilize autonomy for purposes other than as combat weapons.
"DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is currently investigating the role of autonomy in military systems such as UAVs, cyber systems, language processing units, flight control, and unmanned land vehicles, but not in combat or weapon systems," said spokesperson Jared B. Adams.
"The Department of Defense issued directive 3000.09 in 2012, which was re-certified last year, and it notes that humans must retain judgment over the use of force even in autonomous and semi-autonomous systems," he told TechNewsWorld.
"DARPA"s autonomous research portfolio is defensive in nature, looking at ways to protect soldiers from adversarial unmanned systems, operate at machine speed, and/or limit exposure of our service men and women from potential harm," Adams explained.
"The danger of autonomous weapons is overstated," suggested USN Captain (Ret.) Brad Martin, senior policy researcher for autonomous technology in maritime vehicles at the Rand Corporation.
"The capability of weapons to engage targets without human intervention has existed for years," he told TechNewsWorld.
Semi-autonomous systems, those that wouldn"t give full capability to a machine, also could have positive benefits. For example, autonomous systems could react far more quickly than human operators.
"Humans making decisions actually slows things down," noted Martin, "so in many weapons this is less a human rights issue and more a weapons technology issue."Automated Decision Making
Where the issue of killer robots becomes more complicated is in semi-autonomous systems -- those that do have that human element. Such systems could enhance existing weapons platforms and also could help operators determine if it is right to "take the shot."
"Many R&D programs are developing automated systems that can make those decisions quickly," said Frost & Sullivan"s Blades.
"AI could be used to identify something where a human analyst might not be able to work with the information given as quickly, and this is where we see the technology pointing right," he told TechNewsWorld.
"At present there aren"t really efforts to get a fully automated decision making system," Blades added.
These semi-autonomous systems also could allow weapons to be deployed at a distance closer than a human operator could go. They could reduce the number of "friendly fire" incidents as well as collateral damage. Rather than being a system that might increase causalities, the weapons could become more surgical in nature.
"These could provide broader sensor coverage that can reduce the battlefield ambiguity, and improved situational awareness at a chaotic moment," Rand"s Martin said.
"Our campaign does not seek to ban either semi-autonomous weapons or fully autonomous non-weaponized robots," said Human Right Watch"s Docherty.
"We are concerned about fully autonomous weapons, not semi-autonomous ones; fully autonomous weapons are the step beyond existing, remote-controlled armed drones," she added.Mitigation Strategy
It"s uncertain whether the development of autonomous weapons -- even with UN support -- could be stopped. It"s questionable whether it should be stopped entirely. As in the case of the atomic bomb, or the machine gun, or poison gas before it, if even one nation possesses the technology, then other nations will want to be sure they have the ability to respond in kind.
The autonomous arms race therefore could be inevitable. A comparison can be made to chemical and biological weapons. The Biological Weapons Convention -- the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning the development, production and notably stockpiling of this entire category of WMDs -- first was introduced in 1972. Yet many nations still maintain vast supplies of chemical weapons. They actually were used in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and more recently by ISIS fighters, and by the Syrian government in its ongoing civil war.
Thus the development of autonomous weapons may not be stopped entirely, but their actual use could be mitigated.
"The U.S. may want to be in the lead with at least the rules of engagement where armed robots might be used," suggested Blades.
"We may not be signing on to this agreement, but we are already behind the limits of the spread of other advanced weapons," he noted.
It is "naive to yield the use of something that is going to be developed whether we like it or not, especially as this will end up in the hands of those bad actors that may not have our ethical concerns," said Martin.
During the Cold War, nuclear weapons meant mutually assured destruction, but as history has shown, other weapons -- including poison gas and other chemical weapons -- most certainly were used, even recently in Iraq and Syria.
"If Hitler had the atomic bomb he would have found a way to deliver it on London," Martin remarked. "That is as good an analogy to autonomous weapons as we can get."
Peter Suciu has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2012. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile phones, displays, streaming media, pay TV and autonomous vehicles. He has written and edited for numerous publications and websites, including Newsweek, Wired and FoxNews.com.