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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

Updated Aug 30, 2021 - World

Pentagon investigating reports of 10 civilians killed in U.S. drone strike

Taliban fighters investigate a damaged car after multiple rockets were fired in Kabul on Aug. 30. Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. drone strike targeting a vehicle believed to pose an "imminent ISIS-K threat" to Kabul's airport killed 10 Afghan civilians, including seven children, family members and witnesses told the New York Times.

The latest: Asked about the reports of civilian casualties, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said at a briefing on Monday: "We are not in a position to dispute it right now."

1 hour ago - World

Sudanese government says it put down coup attempt

Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok (L) and Sovereign Council Chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. Photo: Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty

The Sudanese government announced on Tuesday morning that its military and security services had foiled an attempted coup from within the country’s armed forces.

Why it matters: The apparent coup attempt comes with Sudan’s transitional government — in which power is shared between civilians and generals — facing crises on several fronts two years after dictator Omar al-Bashir was toppled in a popular uprising.

2 hours ago - Health

Johnson & Johnson says booster shot increases efficacy of COVID vaccine

Syringes and a vial of the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in French Polynesia on Sept. 8. Photo: Jerome Brouillet/AFP via Getty Images

Johnson & Johnson said in a press release Tuesday a global study showed that the protection offered by its coronavirus vaccine was strengthened by a booster shot.

Why it matters: While J&J has not formally applied for authorization to offer booster shots to the general public, it said it has shared the results of the study with the Food and Drug Administration and plans to share it with the World Health Organization and other health regulators.