When I say “the robot wars are coming,” I am referring to the increase in the US Department of Deference’s use of robotic systems and artificial intelligence in warfare.

Recently, September 12, 2014, the US Department of Defense released a report, DTP 106: Policy Challenges of Accelerating Technological Change: Security Policy and Strategy Implications of Parallel Scientific Revolutions. Its authors, James Kadtke and Linton Wells II, delineate the potential benefits and concerns of Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and associated technologies, as they relate to the future of warfare, stating: “This paper examines policy, legal, ethical, and strategy implications for national security of the accelerating science, technology, and engineering (ST&E) revolutions underway in five broad areas: biology, robotics, information, nanotechnology, and energy (BRINE), with a particular emphasis on how they are interacting. The paper considers the time frame between now and 2030 but emphasizes policy and related choices that need to be made in the next few years.” Their  conclusions were shocking:

  • They express concerns about maintaining the US Department of Defense’s present technological preeminence, as other nations and companies in the private sector take the lead in developing robotics, AI and human augmentation such as exoskeletons.
  • They warn that “The loss of domestic manufacturing capability for cutting-edge technologies means the United States may increasingly need to rely on foreign sources for advanced weapons systems and other critical components, potentially creating serious dependencies. Global supply chain vulnerabilities are already a significant concern, for example, from potential embedded “kill switches,” and these are likely to worsen.”
  • The most critical concern they express, in my view, is “In the longer term, fully robotic soldiers may be developed and deployed, particularly by wealthier countries, although the political and social ramifications of such systems will likely be significant. One negative aspect of these trends, however, lies in the risks that are possible due to unforeseen vulnerabilities that may arise from the large scale deployment of smar automated systems, for which there is little practical experience. An emerging risk is the ability of small scale or terrorist groups to design and build functionally capable unmanned systems which could perform a variety of hostile missions.”

It becomes obvious by reading this report and numerous similar reports, that the face of warfare is rapidly changing. It’s hard to believe we’ve come to this point, if you consider that 15 years ago Facebook and Twitter did not exist and Google was just getting started. However, even 15 years ago, drones played a critical role in warfare. For example, it was a Predator mission that located Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 2000. While drones were used as early as World War II for surveillance, it wasn’t until 2001 that missile-equipped drones were completed with the deployment of Predators drones, armed with Hellfire missiles. Today, one in every three fighter planes is a drone. How significant is this change? According to Richard Pildes, a professor of constitutional law at New York University’s School of Law, “Drones are the most discriminating use of force that has ever been developed. The key principles of the laws of war are necessity, distinction and proportionality in the use of force. Drone attacks and targeted killings serve these principles better than any use of force that can be imagined.”

Where is this all headed? Within the near future, the US military will deploy completely autonomy “Kill Bots.” There are robots that are programmed to engage and destroy the enemy without human oversight or control. Science fiction? No! According a 2014 media release from officials at the Office of Naval Research (ONR), a technological breakthrough will allow any unmanned surface vehicle (USV) to not only protect Navy ships, but also, for the first time, autonomously “swarm” offensively on hostile vessels. In my opinion, autonomous Predator drones are likely either being developed or have been developed, but the information remains classified.

Artificial intelligence and robotic systems are definitely changing the face of warfare. Within a decade, I judge, based on the current trends, that about half of the offensive capability of the US Department of Deference will consist of Kill Bots in one form or another, and a large percentage of them will be autonomous.

This suggest two things to me regarding the future of warfare:

  1. Offensively fighting wars will become more palatable to the US public because machines, not humans, will perform the lion’s share of the most dangerous missions.
  2. US adversaries are also likely to use Kill Bots against us, as adversarial nations develop similar technology.

This has prompted a potential United Nations moratorium on autonomous weapons systems. To quote the US DOD report DTP 106, “Perhaps the most serious issue is the possibility of robotic systems that can autonomously decide when to take human life. The specter of Kill Bots waging war without human guidance or intervention has already sparked significant political backlash, including a potential United Nations moratorium on autonomous weapons systems. This issue is particularly serious when one considers that in the future, many countries may have the ability to manufacture, relatively cheaply, whole armies of Kill Bots that could autonomously wage war. This is a realistic possibility because today a great deal of cutting-edge research on robotics and autonomous systems is done outside the United States, and much of it is occurring in the private sector, including DIY robotics communities. The prospect of swarming autonomous systems represents a challenge for nearly all current weapon systems.”

There is no doubt that the robot wars are coming. The real question is: Will humanity survive the robot wars?