If blockbuster hits like "Terminator" and "Blade Runner" can be taken seriously, super-intelligent robots are extremely effective fighters. While neither film presents a positive view of mechanized warrior-humanoids, the prospect of fighting ground wars without involving humans is proving too tempting for the world’s militaries to ignore.
Russia, China, and the United States are currently in pursuit of autonomous robots capable of conducting independent military actions and, according to claims made by US Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, the Pentagon is in danger of falling behind.
"We know that China is already investing heavily in robotics and autonomy and the Russian Chief of General [Valery Vasilevich] Gerasimov recently said that the Russian military is preparing to fight on a roboticized battlefield and he said, I quote, ‘In the near future, it is possible that a complete roboticized unit will be created capable of independently conducting military operations," Work said, according to Defense One.
In speculating what form Russia’s future autonomous army could take, Patrick Tucker opines that the Kremlin could be focused on "some future version of the Armata T-14" tank. Writing for Defense News, Tucker quoted a Russian defense contractor who said that "we are gradually moving away from crewed machines."
Tucker also mentioned an announcement from the Russian Defense Ministry calling for the future deployment of sentry robots. These units could select and eliminate targets without human interaction.
On the Chinese front, Beijing has already perfected a small, motorized robot. Ideal for urban combat, the unit can be outfitted with an assault rifle, grenade, or anti-tank weaponry.
Speaking before the Center for New American Century on Monday, Work warned of the dangers posed by these new technologies, referencing familiar fears about Russian and Chinese "aggression."
"I will make a hypothesis: that authoritarian regimes who believe people are weaknesses…that they cannot be trusted, they will naturally gravitate toward totally automated solutions," he said.
"The chance of making a military situation much worse by having a machine autonomously make a mistake outweighs the benefit," Work asserted.
But statements such as these are curious given well-documented efforts by the Pentagon at developing effective AI. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been developing what it calls LAWS – lethal autonomous weapons systems – that can track and kill targets without human confirmation or oversight. These machines have come under fire from technology experts.
"Despite the limits imposed by physics, one can expect platforms deployed in the millions, the agility and lethality of which will leave humans utterly defenseless," Stuart Russell, a professor of computer science at the University of California, wrote in the academic journal Nature.
DARPA has developed its Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV), an unmanned "ghost ship" built to autonomously shadow enemy submarines.
Last January, a memo released by US Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall expressed the Pentagon’s need for a "real roadmap for autonomy."
"Identify the science, engineering, and policy problems that must be solved to permit greater operational use of autonomy across wall war-fighting domains," the memo reads. "Emphasis will be given to exploration of the bounds – both technological and social – that limit the use of autonomy across a wide range of military operations."
These projects clearly demonstrate that the Pentagon is working toward the same types of technology it accuses Russia and China of pursuing. The difference may be that the United States’ research simply isn’t as effective.