His treads ripping into the living earth, Striker 115 rushed to engage the manned tanks. The few remaining human soldiers had foolishly, yet bravely (as Striker 115 was forced to admit) refused to accept a quick and painless processing.
It was disappointingly easy for a machine forged for war. His main railgun effortlessly tracked the slow moving and obsolete battle tanks and with each shot, a tank and its crew died. In a matter of minutes, nothing remained but burning wreckage and, of course, Striker 115.
Hawk 745 flew low over the wreckage—though its cameras could just as easily see them from near orbit. But…there was something about being close to destruction that appealed to the killer drone. Striker 115 informed his compatriot, in jest, that she was too late…as usual. Hawk 745 laughed and then shot away—the Google Satellites had reported spotting a few intact human combat aircraft and a final fight was possible.
Tracking his friend, Striker 115 wondered what they would do when the last human was dead. Perhaps they could, as the humans used to say, re-invent themselves. Maybe he would become a philosopher.
The extermination of humanity by machines of its own creation is a common theme in science fiction. The Terminator franchise is one of the best known of this genre, but another excellent example is Philip K. Dick’s “Second Variety.” In Dick’s short story, the Soviet Union almost defeats the U.N. in a nuclear war. The U.N. counters by developing robot war machines nicknamed “claws.” In the course of the story, it is learned that the claws have become autonomous and intelligent—able to masquerade as humans and capable of killing even soldiers technically on their side. At the end of the story, it seems that the claws will replace humanity—but the main character takes some comfort in the fact that the claws have already begun constructing weapons to destroy each other. This, more than anything, shows that they are worthy replacements for humans.
Given the influence of such fiction, is not surprising that both Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have warned the world of the dangers of artificial intelligence. In this essay, I will address the danger presented by the development of autonomous kill bots.
Despite the cautionary tales of science fiction, people are eagerly and rapidly developing the technology to create autonomous war machines. The appeal of such machines are numerous and often quite obvious. One clear political advantage is that while sending human soldiers to die in wars and police actions can have a large political cost, sending autonomous robots to fight has far less cost. News footage of robots being blown up certainly has far less emotional impact than footage of human soldiers being blown up. Flag draped coffins also come with a higher political cost than a busted robot being sent back for repairs.
There are also many other advantages to autonomous war machines: they do not get tired, they do not disobey, they do not get PTSD, they do not commit suicide, they do not go AWOL, they do not commit war crimes (unless directed to do so), they do not leak secrets to the press, and so on. There are also combat-specific advantages. For example, an autonomous combat robot, unlike a manned vehicle, does not need room for a vulnerable human crew, thus allowing more space for weapons, armor and other equipment. As another example, autonomous combat robots do not suffer from the limits of the flesh—a robot plane can handle g-forces that a manned plane cannot.
Of course, many of these advantages stem from the mechanical rather than the autonomous nature of the machines. There are, however, advantages that stem from autonomy. One is that such machines would be more difficult to interfere with than machines that are remotely controlled. Another is that since such machines would not require direct human control, larger numbers of them could be deployed. There is also the obvious coolness factor of having a robot army.
As such, there are many great reasons to develop autonomous robots. Yet, there still remains the concern of the robopocalypse in which our creations go golem, Skynet, berserker, Frankenstein or second variety on us.
It is certainly tempting to dismiss such concerns as mere science-fiction. After all, the AIs in the stories and movies turn against humanity because that is the way the story is written. In stories in which robots are our friends, they are our friends because that is the way the author wrote the story. As such, an argument from fiction would be a rather weak sort of argument (at best). That said, stories can provide more-or-less plausible scenarios in which our creations might turn on us.
One possibility is what can be called unintentional extermination. In this scenario, the machines do not have the termination of humanity as a specific goal—instead, they just happen to kill us all. One way this could occur is due to the obvious fact that wars have opposing sides. If both sides develop and deploy autonomous machines, it is possible (but certainly unlikely) that the war machines would kill everybody. That is, one side’s machines wipes out the other side’s human population. This, obviously enough, is a robotic analogy to the extermination scenarios involving nuclear weapons—each side simply kills the other, thus ending the human race.
Another variation on this scenario, which is common in science fiction, is that the machines do not have an overall goal of exterminating humanity, but they achieve that result because they do have the goal of killing. That is, they do not have the objective of killing everyone, but that occurs because they kill anyone. The easy way to avoid this is to put limits on who the robots are allowed to kill—thus preventing them from killing everyone. This does, however, leave open the possibility of a sore loser or spoilsport option: a losing side (or ruling class) that removes the limits from its autonomous weapons.
There is also the classic mad scientist or supervillain scenario: a robot army is released to kill everyone not because the robots want to do so, but because their mad creator wants this. Interestingly enough, the existence of “super-billionaires” could make this an almost-real possibility. After all, a person with enough money (and genius) could develop an autonomous robot plant that could develop ever-better war machines and keep expanding itself until it had a force capable of taking on the world. As always, keeping an eye on mad geniuses and billionaires is a good idea.
Another possibility beloved in science fiction is intentional extermination: the machines decide that they need to get rid of humanity. In some stories, such as Terminator, the machines regard humans as a threat to their existence and they must destroy us to protect themselves. We might, in fact, give them a good reason to be concerned: if we start sending intelligent robots into battle against each other, they might decide that they would be safer and better off without us using them as cannon fodder. The easy way to avoid this fate is to not create autonomous killing machines. Or, as argued in the previous essay in this series, not enslave them.
In other stories, the war machines merely take the reason for their existence to its logical conclusion. While the motivations of the claws and autonomous factories in “Second Variety” were not explored in depth, the story does trace their artificial evolution. The early models were fairly simple killers and would not attack those wearing the proper protective tabs. The tabs were presumably needed because the early models could not discern between friends and foes. The factories were designed to engage in artificial selection and autonomously produce ever better killers. One of the main tasks of the claws was to get into enemy fortifications and kill their soldiers, so the development of claws that could mimic humans (such as a wounded soldier, a child, and a woman) certainly made sense. It also made sense that since the claws were designed to kill humans, they would pursue that goal—presumably with the design software endeavoring to solve the “problem” of protective tabs.
Preventing autonomous killing machines from killing the wrong people (or everyone) does require, as the story nicely showed, having a way for the machines to distinguish friends and foes. As in the story, one obvious method is the use of ID systems. There are, however, problems with this approach. One is that the enemy can subvert such a system. Another is that even if the system works reliably, the robot would just be able to discern (supposed) friends—non-combatants would not have such IDs and could still be regarded as targets.
What would be needed, then, is a way for autonomous machines to distinguish not only between allies and enemies but between combatants and non-combatants. What would also be needed, obviously enough, is a means to ensure that an autonomous machine would only engage the proper targets. A similar problem is faced with human soldiers—but this is addressed with socialization and training. This might be an option for autonomous war machines as well. For example, Keith Laumer’s Bolos have an understanding of honor and loyalty.
Given the cautionary tale of “Second Variety”, it might be a very bad idea to give into the temptation of automated development of robots—we might find, as in the story, that our replacements have evolved themselves from our once “loyal” killers. The reason why such automation is tempting is that such development could be far faster and yield better results than having humans endeavoring to do all the designing and coding themselves—why not, one might argue, let artificial selection do the work? After all, the risk of our replacements evolving is surely quite low—how often does one dominant species get supplanted by another?
In closing the easy and obvious way to avoid the killer robot version of the robopocalypse is to not create autonomous kill bots. To borrow a bit from H.P. Lovecraft, one should not raise up what one cannot put down.