Killer robots closer to reality than we think,United Nations is told

Australia a target for drones?

Is the Australian Defence Force the next big customer for unmanned aerial vehicles? Vision General Atomics’ promotional video.

Australia has warned the world that artificially intelligent killer robots “may be closer than many of us had imagined” and nations need to work harder to tackle the future threat they may pose.

At a United Nations meeting on “lethal autonomous weapons systems” in Geneva, Switzerland, the Australian delegation on Monday night called on the world to come up with agreed rules about how to handle the rapid pace in technology in military artificial intelligence.

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“The development of fully autonomous systems able to conduct military targeting operations which kill and injure combatants or civilians may be closer than many of us had imagined,” the delegation’s statement said.

“It is an appropriate time to consider the risks of such weapons systems and to make sure we understand fully what might constitute misuse as well as legitimate use of emerging technologies.”

The Geneva meeting is the third gathering on artificially intelligent weapons held by the UN’s disarmament branch. Last year, some of the world’s most prominent scientists and technology entrepreneurs including physicist Stephen Hawking, Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak signed a letter warning about the dangers of autonomous weapons, which they said would be technologically feasible “within years, not decades”.

United Nations of the potential threat of intelligent killer robots-image

Australia has warned the United Nations of the potential threat of intelligent killer robots. Photo: Keystone

The Australian statement to the UN meeting on Monday said the world still had “some way to go” in agreeing whether there should be limits on autonomy given to weapons systems such as aerial drones and, if so, how to create and enforce global rules.

“We should not underestimate the complexity of this task … As an international community, we remain some way from common understandings and universal acceptance of the potential use of [lethal autonomous weapons systems], and a long way from being able to set enforceable standards for their use,” it said.

“We must work harder in our collaborative examination of the issues.”

A robot distributes promotional literature calling for a ban on fully autonomous weapons in London's Parliament Square ...

A robot distributes promotional literature calling for a ban on fully autonomous weapons in London’s Parliament Square last year. Photo: Getty Images

The recent defence white paper confirmed that the Australian Defence Force wants to buy armed drones – or unmanned aerial vehicles – by early next decade.

These are remotely piloted and operated from the ground, but many experts expect such drones to be progressively given greater autonomy over the coming decades.

The Pentagon’s directive on autonomy in weapons systems states that people should still decide when weapons are fired.

“Autonomous and semi-autonomous weapon systems shall be designed to allow commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgement over the use of force,” it states.

General Atomics, which makes the well-known Predator and Reaper drones, established an office in Canberra in November in the expectation the ADF will soon start looking to buy armed drones.


Henry Sapiecha

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