The new battlefield where robot armies take human fingers off the trigger

The new battlefield where robot armies take human fingers off the trigger, by Ben McIntyre.

The third major arms race in history is under way, ferocious and largely unnoticed by the public. As always, it has been sparked by a combination of human ingenuity, fear and aggression.

The first arms race was triggered by the invention of gunpowder. The second by the development of nuclear weapons. And the third is driven by the race to develop armaments using artificial intelligence: weapons that can think and fight for themselves, and change the character of war. …

They are already here.

America’s “semi-autonomous” long-range anti-ship missile uses humans to identify targets, but then deploys AI to decide how to avoid defences and destroy them. The Russians have developed a fully robotic tank with an unmanned turret and the capability to plan ambushes without human intervention. Israel already uses the Harpy, a drone that seeks out and destroys radar systems on its own, without human permission, loitering in the sky until a target appears.

South Korea has a robotic sentry gun guarding the border with North Korea. The Sea Hunter, a US anti-submarine vessel, can cruise the oceans for months at a time scouting for enemies, with no one aboard — a lethal Mary Celeste.

No fully autonomous weapon has yet been developed but 400 partly independent weapons and robotic systems are under development in 12 countries, for use on land, sea or air. …

Hitherto, war has depended on a range of human qualities: determination, courage, fear, tactical expertise and creativity; what TE Lawrence described as the “irrational tenth” that is the mark of a great general: “It can only be ensured by instinct, sharpened by thought.”

Machines will soon supply the irrational tenth, unencumbered by fear, fatigue, boredom or moral qualms. …

A machine cannot respect human life but would have the power to destroy it. Mercy is integral to combat, along with the human understanding that soldiers only fight in order that the fighting will one day cease. We may invent machines to make war on our behalf, but only humans can make peace.