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Autonomous Robots Pose Threat to Mankind

February 27, 2008

Killer robots may pose a threat to humans sometime in the all-too-near future. Noel Sharkey, a professor at the University of Sheffield, presented this information to Britain’s Royal United Services Institute on Wednesday.

Sharkey, who was once a judge on television’s Robot Wars as well as an expert for the BBC’s TechnoGames, knows a great deal about robotics. His concerns might quickly lead to the disquieting of our country.

According to Sharkey, we are currently in the first phase of what could become an international robot arms race. Currently, there are over 4,000 U.S. military robots in Iraq. Those numbers don’t even include unmanned aircraft, which had already flown well over 400,000 hours as of a year and a half ago.

As far as armed robots go, the first three fitted with machine guns were deployed last summer, and 80 more have been ordered. The robots, currently, are under human control; being directed by humans when and what to shoot. Soon, this may not be the case.

The U.S. is estimating that by 2010, it will spend around four billion dollars on unmanned systems technology, or autonomous robotics. Sharkey states military leaders “are quite clear that they want autonomous robots as soon as possible, because they are the most cost-effective and give a risk-free war.”

Due to the leading of the U.S., several countries have already adopted robots to guard their borders. Sharkey expressed concerns on Wednesday that terrorists may have a chance of capturing the robots in order to reverse engineer them. He explains that robot parts and systems have become more and more affordable in recent days, and that the skill required to build them is not nearly as high as it once was. Sharkey claims that a small GPS-guided robot could be produced for $200-400.

Not only is there concern about copycatting, but also about the development of the robots. These machines have the potential to start out as semi-autonomous, but to develop into full blown “killing machines”. Instead of humans controlling the machines, the robots will control themselves, making the decision on their own of what to shoot.

The shift to being fully autonomous will be a gradual one, due mostly to technical and ethical barriers. We do not yet have the technology to teach a robot the difference between civilians and soldiers, or how to respond proportionally to what it is up against. As for the ethical problems, the U.S. Department of defense seems to be looking past the implications.

There are several appealing traits which might make these robots more desirable. They could be on the front line, protecting and distracting from human soldiers. They also would probably have the capabilities to out-perform humans, as well as process information sans-emotions.

Sharkey clearly thinks the cons outweigh the pros. If these robots get out of hand, or out of the hands of the U.S., things could get dangerous.

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