The warnings have been sounded for decades.
It won’t be long now: all the parts and systems to create lethal machines with a mind of their own, deciding who and when to kill without human oversight are conceptually already developed. It is just a matter of time, and by all accounts that time is short.
At least since 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day, the public has known (through Hollywood, anyway) of the dangers posed to humanity by artificial intelligence, robotics and the computer revolution.
But today, they are more real than ever.
Researchers are issuing a red alert, as the industry stands at the cusp of developing Lethal, Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS), an acronym for machines with a mind of their own, capable of cutting humans out of the loop in determining who is a threat, who to target and when to kill. Nature reports:
Technologies have reached a point at which the deployment of such systems is — practically if not legally — feasible within years, not decades. The stakes are high: LAWS have been described as the third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear arms.
[…] Autonomous weapons systems select and engage targets without human intervention; they become lethal when those targets include humans.
Existing AI and robotics components can provide physical platforms, perception, motor control, navigation, mapping, tactical decision-making and long-term planning. They just need to be combined. For example, the technology already demonstrated for self-driving cars, together with the human-like tactical control learned by DeepMind’s DQN system, could support urban search-and-destroy missions.
Two US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) programmes foreshadow planned uses of LAWS: Fast Lightweight Autonomy (FLA) and Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment (CODE). The FLA project will program tiny rotorcraft to manoeuvre unaided at high speed in urban areas and inside buildings. CODE aims to develop teams of autonomous aerial vehicles carrying out “all steps of a strike mission — find, fix, track, target, engage, assess” in situations in which enemy signal-jamming makes communication with a human commander impossible.
They could come in the form of drones, walking/running/jumping/climbing robots, nanobots, swarming smart dust, etc. , or just computer systems and apps.
The implications for war – and plenty of other sectors of society including medical care – are obviously quite frightening. (TerminatorCare death panels would very likely outstrip ObamaCare death panels).
LAWS could violate fundamental principles of human dignity by allowing machines to choose whom to kill — for example, they might be tasked to eliminate anyone exhibiting ‘threatening behaviour’. The potential for LAWS technologies to bleed over into peacetime policing functions is evident to human-rights organizations and drone manufacturers.
If this technology poses such a threat to humanity, why are so many in the industry racing to the finish? Frankly, there is very little holding them back.
According to Nature, the experts bringing AI and robotics to full power must make a decision – before it is too late:
The artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics communities face an important ethical decision: whether to support or oppose the development of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS).
The AI and robotics science communities, represented by their professional societies, are obliged to take a position, just as physicists have done on the use of nuclear weapons, chemists on the use of chemical agents and biologists on the use of disease agents in warfare. Debates should be organized at scientific meetings; arguments studied by ethics committees; position papers written for society publications; and votes taken by society members. Doing nothing is a vote in favour of continued development and deployment.
Without a massive display of restraint on the part of the scientists and researchers bringing this to the fore, we may be only years away from the technology that played out so vividly in the Schwarzenegger flick that captured so many minds.
But the existential threat posed by killer robots calling their own shots and running wild over the land isn’t the only challenge to the continuance of humanity.
There is also the job front.
With robotics quickly moving to take over labor and manufacturing jobs of all sorts, and just as rapidly filling the majority of white collar job duties as well, where will it leave those humans in need of work and a means of income?
Understandably, there a great deal of concern about the possibility of robots killing half of all U.S. jobs:
If robots replace half of US workers, what role will humans play?
[A University of Oxford] report, titled “The Future of Employment,” estimates that 47 percent of jobs in the United States are susceptible to automation within the next 20 years as computers and robots become more sophisticated.
His 2013 report included several surprising conclusions, such as the prediction that restaurant servers are particularly susceptible to having their jobs replaced by computers and robots. The authors said they found that scenario implausible at first, since making pleasant small talk with customers is at the heart of a restaurant service job, and that’s not something robots are particularly good at. But a number of restaurant chains, including Chili’s and Applebee’s, have begun adding small tablets to their tables that allow customers to place food orders and pay for their meals. Servers still bring food to tables and interact with customers, but some aspects of the job are now automated.
In addition to restaurant servers, they found that telemarketers, legal secretaries, watch repairers, and – surprisingly – models were at an especially high risk of being replaced by machines.
Those leading Silicon Valley and the tech research have reassured us all that new, innovative and unforeseen human jobs will replace the jobs we used to hold, just as people stopped farming, and moved out of agriculture to find better jobs in the city in the mid-2oth Century.
How true that is, and how many people will be displaced by the killer wave of automation remains to be seen.
Until then, hold on to your humanity.