Robots are all around us and more are coming. They are starting to take over some of the jobs that humans have done from flipping burgers to traffic cops. As the technology improves robots will perform other tasks and one that has been speculated about many times in science fiction or even everyday conversation is the role of a soldier. Robot soldiers could save many lives of the battlefield or they could turn and become humanity’s worst nightmare. We may never find out though as members of the European Parliament are working to have their use as weapons banned under international law.

Ban killer robots?

Recently the EU Parliament passed a resolution calling for an international ban on killer robots. The same effort was tried in the UN but no agreement was reached as several countries wanted to explore the benefits of AI as a weapon system. The issue will be brought back up before the UN in November. The goal of the EU politicians was to preempt development and use of systems that can kill without human instruction.

Supporters say that the ability to take a human life should not be up to a machine. Military technology they argue is outpacing international law and new military technology like drones controlled by AI or guns capable of choosing their own target need to be scrutinized. Some countries (the US included) were against the UN resolution and want to explore the possibilities of what AI can do on the battlefield. Some of the dissenters of the EU resolution also believe that any measure like this will curtail development of AI in the future. After all most technology has a military application long before a civilian application.

Banned weapons

Throughout modern warfare there have been weapons that have been banned. Many of these were once staples of military arsenals. Weapons like mustard gas, nerve gas, spike pits, biological weapons, plastic land mines, flamethrowers (or their use in urban settings), napalm and even tear gas (battlefield use only) are banned under international law. There is even precedent for banning a weapon before it is even used. The “dirty bomb” has been banned under international law.

A familiar theme in sci-fi

The number of dystopian scenarios involving killer robots is nearly endless. Nearly every sci-fi show has based a plot or two around it and it has been the subject of several hit movies. After all if Skynet is never built there will be no Terminators will there and humanity will be saved. That’s the idea. AI has the potential to and probably wlll be the next great arms race. Wealthier countries with bloated military budgets like the US, China and Russia would have a vested interest in developing this technology which would further cement their roles as superpowers leaving the rest of the world behind (and conquerable). Could World War 3 be fought by robots being commanded from a command center thousands of miles away? Let’s hope we never have to find out.

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