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  • Militaries  around the world ‘very excited’ about replacing soldiers with robots that can  act independently
  • U.S. leads  the way with automated weapons systems, but drones still need remote control  operator authorisation to open fire
  • Human  Rights Watch calls for worldwide ban on autonomous killing machines before  governments start using them

By Damien Gayle

PUBLISHED:06:06 EST, 20  November 2012| UPDATED:10:09 EST, 20 November 2012


Fully autonomous robots that decide for  themselves when to kill could be developed within 20 to 30 years, or ‘even  sooner’, a report has warned.

Militaries across the world are said to be  ‘very excited’ about machines that could deployed alone in battle, sparing human  troops from dangerous situations.

The U.S. is leading development in such  ‘killer robots’, notably unmanned drones often used to attack suspected  militants in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere.

Rise Of The Machines: The third instalment of the Terminator film franchise imagines the chain of events that leads to death-dealing computers taking over the planet 

Rise Of The Machines: The third instalment of  the  Terminator film franchise imagines the chain of events that leads to death-dealing computers taking over the planet using robot  soldiers

Drones are remotely controlled by human  operators and unable to kill without authorisation, but weapons systems that  require little human intervention already exist.

Raytheon’s Phalanx gun system, deployed on  U.S. Navy ships, can search for enemy fire and destroy incoming projectiles by  itself.

The Northrop Grumman X47B is a plane-sized  drone able to take off and land on aircraft carriers, carry out air combat  without a pilot and even refuel in the air.

But perhaps closest to the Terminator-type  killing machine portrayed in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action films is a Samsung  sentry robot already being used in South Korea.

The machine is able to spot unusual activity,  challenge intruders and, when authorised by a human controller, open  fire.

Automatic death: Samsung's machine gun sentry robot, which is already in use in South Korea, can spot unusual activity, challenge intruders and, when authorised by a human controller, open fireAutomatic death: Samsung’s machine gun sentry robot,  which is already in use in South Korea, can spot unusual activity, challenge  intruders and, when authorised by a human controller, open fire

The warnings come from a new report by Human  Rights Watch, which insists that such Terminator-style robots are banned before  governments start deploying them.


US  researchers are working on a real-life Robocop who would patrol the streets to  combat crime – just like in the film.

Injured policemen  or soldiers will be wired up to the ‘PatrolBot’ which will effectively give them  mechanical limbs that they have lost whilst in service.

The plan is to  make a basic version of Alex Murphy, the fictional policeman in the 1987 hit  Robocop, who is turned into a cyber cop after being nearly killed in the line of  duty.

The new  technology is based on advances in the US military in telerobotics, which is  where users are wired up remotely to a robot and given physical feedback to  simulate the feeling of being there.

The report, dubbed Losing Humanity and  co-written by Harvard Law School’s  International Human Rights Clinic, raises  the alarm over the ethics of  the looming technology.

Calling them ‘killer robots,’ it urges ‘an  international treaty that would  absolutely prohibit the development,  production, and use of fully  autonomous weapons.’

Such  machines would mean that human soldiers  could be spared from dangerous  situations, but the downside is that robots  would then be left to make  highly nuanced decisions on their own, the most  fraught being the need  to distinguish between civilians and combatants in a war  zone.

‘A number of governments, including the  United States, are very excited about moving in this direction, very excited  about taking the soldier off the battlefield and putting machines on the  battlefield and thereby lowering casualties,’ said Steve Goose, arms division  director at Human Rights Watch.

While Goose said ‘killer robots’ do  not  exist as yet, he warned of precursors and added that the best way to forestall  an ethical nightmare is a ‘preemptive, comprehensive  prohibition on the  development or production of these systems.’

‘If a robot goes wrong, who’s accountable? It certainly won’t be the robot’

Noel  Sharkey,  University of Sheffield

The problem with handing over decision-making  power to even the most sophisticated robots is that there would be no clear way  of making anyone answer for the inevitable mistakes, said Noel Sharkey,  professor of robotics at University of Sheffield.

‘If a robot goes wrong, who’s accountable? It  certainly won’t be the robot,’ he said.

‘The robot could take a bullet in its  computer and go berserk. So there’s no way of really determining who’s  accountable and that’s very important for the laws of war.’

Now watch a video demo of Samsung’s machine gun sentry robot

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