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Military Killer Robots 'Could Endanger Civilians'
Action on a global scale must be taken to curb the development of military killer robots that think for themselves, a leading British expert said.
"Terminator"-style machines that decide how, when and who to kill are just around the corner, warns Noel Sharkey, Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics at the University of Sheffield.
Far from helping to reduce casualties, their use is likely to make conflict and war more common and lead to a major escalation in numbers of civilian deaths, he believes.
"I do think there should be some international discussion and arms control on these weapons but there's absolutely none," said Prof Sharkey.
"The military have a strange view of artificial intelligence based on science fiction. The nub of it is that robots do not have the necessary discriminatory ability. They can't distinguish between combatants and civilians. It's hard enough for soldiers to do that."
Iraq and Afghanistan have both provided ideal "showcases" for robot weapons, said Prof Sharkey.
The "War on Terror" declared by President George Bush spurred on the development of pilotless drone aircraft deployed against insurgents.
Initially used for surveillance, drones such as the Predator and larger Reaper were now armed with bombs and missiles.
The US currently has 200 Predators and 30 Reapers and next year alone will be spending 5.5 billion dollars (£3.29 billion) on unmanned combat vehicles.
Britain had two Predators until one crashed in Iraq last year.
At present these weapons are still operated remotely by humans sitting in front of computer screens. RAF pilots on secondment were among the more experienced controllers used by the US military, while others only had six weeks training, said Prof Sharkey. "If you're good at computer games, you're in," he added.
But rapid progress was being made towards robots which took virtually all their own decisions and were merely "supervised" by humans.
These would be fully autonomous killing machines reminiscent of those depicted in the "Terminator" films.
"The next thing that's coming, and this is what really scares me, are armed autonomous robots," said Prof Sharkey speaking to journalists 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."
A step on the way had already been taken by Israel with "Harpy", a pilotless aircraft that flies around searching for an enemy radar signal. When it thinks one has been located and identified as hostile, the drone turns into a homing missile and launches an attack - all without human intervention.
Last year the British aerospace company BAe Systems completed a flying trial with a group of drones that could communicate with each other and select their own targets, said Prof Starkey. The United States Air Force was looking at the concept of "swarm technology" which involved multiple drone aircraft operating together.
Flying drones were swiftly being joined by armed robot ground vehicles, such as the Talon Sword which bristles with machine guns, grenade launchers, and anti-tank missiles.
However it was likely to be decades before such robots possessed a human-like ability to tell friend from foe.
Even with human controllers, drones were already stacking up large numbers of civilian casualties.
As a result of 60 known drone attacks in Pakistan between January 2006 and April 2009, 14 al Qaida leaders had been killed but also 607 civilians, said Prof Sharkey.
The US was 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, he added. But often the tags were thrown down randomly, marking out completely innocent civilians for attack.
Prof Sharkey, who insists he is "not a pacifist" and has no anti-war agenda, said: "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.
"People talk about programming the 'laws of war' into a computer to give robots a conscience, so that if the target is a civilian you don't shoot. But for a robot to recognise a civilian you need an exact specification, and one of the problems is there's no specific definition of a civilian. Soldiers have to rely on common sense.
"I'm not saying it will never happen, but I know what's out there and it's not going to happen for a long time."