21 January 2021

The Atlantic: “Killer Robots and the New Era of Machine-Driven Warfare”

While Work was at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, in 2013, he and his colleagues were surprised by the outcome of some classified Pentagon simulations of theoretical conflicts with China or Russia. After the Cold War, these kinds of exercises typically ended with either the U.S. claiming a decisive victory, or a nuclear Armageddon. But the new simulations made it evident the U.S.’s technological edge was starting to evaporate, he and others say. New disruptive technologies had leveled the playing field, causing blue [to get]… its ass handed to it sometimes, in the colorful vernacular last March of an analyst from the RAND Corporation in Washington. The U.S. is dependent on big aircraft carriers to deliver military might to conflict areas, especially in the Pacific, but those carriers, and the expensive fighters and bombers that go with them, could be rendered useless by a hypersonic missile attack, swarms of inexpensive boats, or cyber weapons.

Work, like all the current and former officials who discussed the future of AI in weapons with me, said that he doesn’t know of anyone in the military now trying to remove human beings entirely from lethal decision making. No such offensive system has been put through the specialized review process created by an Obama-era Pentagon directive, although the procedures have gotten a lot of internal attention, according to current and former Defense Department officials.

Work also says that the concept of machines entirely picking their own targets or going horribly awry, like something out of the Terminator movies, is unlikely because the offensive technologies being developed have only narrow applications. They will only attack the things that we said they could, Work said.

Zachary Fryer-Biggs

I was reminded by this article by recent news that the U.S. Air Force flew an AI copilot on a U-2 spy plane – clearly this kind of military research is continuing and accelerating. With the recent tensions between the US and China, and Russia causing mischief at every opportunity, the coming years may see the escalation of a new arms race with cyber and AI weapons, hidden battles fought in digital spaces and remote areas by computer programs and AI-controlled drones. India could also join this arms race, given their recent skirmishes with Chinese forces. And with more participants, the danger of these AI weapons getting out of control increases considerably, despite the limited scope and best intentions expressed in the quotes above…

Killer robots illustration Glenn Harvey
Coming Soon to a Battlefield: Robots that Can Kill | Glenn Harvey

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