May 29, 2021 - Technology

The age of killer robots may have already begun

A rally in Berlin in 2019 to push for a ban on autonomous weapons.

A rally in Berlin in 2019 to push for a ban on autonomous weapons. Credit: Wolfgang Kumm/picture alliance via Getty Images

A drone that can select and engage targets on its own attacked soldiers during a civil conflict in Libya.

Why it matters: If confirmed, it would likely represent the first-known case of a machine-learning-based autonomous weapon being used to kill, potentially heralding a dangerous new era in warfare.

Driving the news: According to a recent report by the UN Panel of Experts on Libya, a Turkish-made STM Kargu-2 drone may have "hunted down and ... engaged" retreating soldiers fighting with Libyan Gen. Khalifa Haftar last year.

  • It's not clear whether any soldiers were killed in the attack, although the UN experts — which call the drone a "lethal autonomous weapons system" — imply they likely were.
  • Such an event, writes Zachary Kallenborn — a research affiliate with the Unconventional Weapons and Technology Division of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism — would represent "a new chapter in autonomous weapons, one in which they are used to fight and kill human beings based on artificial intelligence."

How it works: The Kargu is a loitering drone that uses computer vision to select and engage targets without a connection between the drone and its operator, giving it "a true 'fire, forget and find' capability," the UN report notes.

Between the lines: Recent conflicts — like those between Armenia and Azerbaijan and Israel and Hamas in Gaza — have featured an extensive use of drones of all sorts.

  • The deployment of truly autonomous drones could represent a military revolution on par with the introduction of guns or aircraft — and unlike nuclear weapons, they're likely to be easily obtainable by nearly any military force.

What they're saying: "If new technology makes deterrence impossible, it might condemn us to a future where everyone is always on the offense," the economist Noah Smith writes in a frightening post on the future of war.

The bottom line: Humanitarian organizations and many AI experts have called for a global ban on lethal autonomous weapons, but a number of countries — including the U.S. — have stood in the way.

Go deeper