The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

May 8, 2013

Killer robot report plants seed of our eventual doom

By Nick Hildebrand

---- — “ A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” - Isaac Asimov’s First Law of Robotics.

It’s not every day, or ever, that killer robots make international news. One reason is that, as far as we can tell, they don’t exist. Yet.

Another is that killer robots are a concept that most of us, if we ever think about it at all, see hundreds of years in the future, dealing death in some sort of distopian hellscape.

But that’s an optimistic view, according to a U.N. report issued online last week that put the phrase “tireless killing machines” into the lexicon of international law.

Killer robots, or “lethal autonomous robotics” in the parlance of the report by South African law professor Christof Heynes, are not yet a reality, but, given the pace of technological advances, could be in a decade.

Today’s remote-controlled drone aircraft may soon be programmed to select targets and fire missiles on its own, taking the already-removed-from-the-battlefield pilot out of the loop entirely. Israel already uses a missile system known as “Fire and Forget.”

For the military, killer robots would be a force-multiplying game-changer. Imagine: war without casualties ... at least on one side.

In prose both frightening – “a future in which fully autonomous robots could exercise the power of life and death over human beings” - and amusing - “The prospect of being killed by robots could lead to high levels of anxiety among at least the civilian population” – Heynes explores the questions raised by autonomous robotic weapons systems.

“Taking humans out of the loop also risks taking humanity out of the loop,” he writes. “Decisions over life and death in armed conflict may require compassion and intuition. Humans – while they are fallible – at least might possess these qualities, whereas robots definitely do not.”

The report urges a moratorium on the development and deployment of killer robots, at least until some kind of guidelines for their use can be hammered out by international diplomats who have no way of enforcing those guidelines without the agreement of a permanent group of overseers, many of whom are the same nations who have the means to create killer robots.

Heynes deserves credit for taking something that seems silly very seriously and offering the world a comprehensive but digestible guide to a question that will have a major impact on our future.

“Will” and not “could” because human nature being what it is we will surely develop killer robots and deploy them on some future battlefield for all the “right” reasons.

Heynes touches on them in his report: they’re efficient and tougher than people; they can take the burden of dirty, dull and dangerous work from soldiers; unlike drones, robots may be able to employ less than lethal force; and unlike people, they don’t hesitate or share our potential for depravity – “Robots also do not rape.”

Sooner or later someone will make those arguments in favor of lethal autonomous robotics and – probably with a little financial help from defense contractors – they’ll convince the decision makers that killer robots are the way to go.

But they’re not. Killer robots are bad. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it.

If a lifetime of consuming science fiction has taught me anything, it’s that robots can’t be trusted. Sure there are few good ones – R2D2, Robby, Astroboy - but most robots are ticking time bombs.  

In every case, killer robots turn on their human masters, destroy them and replace them. The only question then is how long it will take the robots to root out and exterminate the remains of the human race.

Our only chance to defeat them before that is time travel, straight out of “The Terminator” or the cult British series Doctor Who, featuring a 900-year-old time lord who regularly faces down killer robots like the Cybermen.

But it’s a slim chance, considering that most of the folks who are probably smart enough to crack the enigma of time travel are busy working on lethal autonomous robotics or some other technology that will spell our eventual doom.

Science fiction paints a dim picture of the future with killer robots. It also raises some hope. For every relentless automated killing machine envisioned by hack writers over the generation, there’s a counterweight in a rogue scientist who has a solution to the problem that’s so crazy, it just might work.

If killer robots are just around the corner, then somewhere out there, in a basement or a garage (perhaps housing a DeLorean), a crackpot in a lab coat is feverishly working on a time machine.

Let’s just hope their inevitable breakthrough comes before the robots have exterminated the rest of us.

Nick Hildebrand is The Herald’s news editor/weekends. Contact him at