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A still from the video "If Human: Kill ( )." Image: Future of Life Institute

A new short film warns of the coming risks posed by the development and proliferation of lethal autonomous weapons.

Why it matters: Drones with the ability to autonomously target and kill without the assistance of a human operator are reportedly already being used on battlefields, and time is running out to craft a global ban of what could be a destabilizing and terrifying new class of weapon.

What's happening: The Future of Life Institute (FLI), a nonprofit focused on existential risks from technology, today released "If Human: Kill ( )," a video that depicts what the future could be like if lethal autonomous weapons go unregulated.

  • In a word: horrific. The film splices fictional news clips to show drones and robots armed with automatic weapons using facial recognition to identify and kill political protesters and police, aid bank robberies, and assassinate scientists.

Flashback: The new film is a sequel to a 2017 video by FLI that gave a name for these autonomous weapons: "slaughterbots."

  • While many of the concerns about autonomous weapons focus on the possibility they could turbocharge warfare between states, or even go rogue "Terminator"-style, the FLI videos imagine a future where AI weapons fall into the hands of criminals and terrorists who can use them to wreak havoc.
  • Instead of Skynet, think self-controlled and self-targeting AK-47s, a weapon that has already killed millions of people around the world.

What they're saying: "The weapons we portray in the film are mainly going to be used by civilians on civilians," says Max Tegmark, co-founder of FLI and an AI researcher at MIT. "And I'm so worried about this precisely because they're so small and cheap that they can proliferate."

What to watch: Later this month, a UN conference in Geneva will discuss whether to create a new international treaty banning weapons systems that can select and engage targets without "meaningful human control," as groups like FLI and the International Committee of the Red Cross have called for.

The bottom line: "Superpowers should realize that it's not in their interest to allow AI weapons of mass destruction that everyone would be able to afford," says Tegmark.

Editor's note: This story was first published on Dec. 1.

Go deeper

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Winter view from Charlotte as winter storm Izzy creates dangerous conditions in Charlotte, N.C. on Jan. 16. Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A major winter storm was lashing much of the East Coast on Sunday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The big picture: Heavy snow and ice accumulations are "likely to produce hazardous travel," downed trees and more power outages from the Mid-South to the Northeast, per the National Weather Service. Some parts of the U.S. can expect to see up to a foot of snow through Monday.

Updated 1 hour ago - Science

Volcanic eruption in Tonga caused "significant" damage

This satellite image of the eruption on Jan. 15 taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite operated by Japan Meteorological Agency and released by National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT). Photo: NICT via AP

Significant damage has been reported in Tonga following an undersea volcanic eruption on Saturday, which covered the Pacific nation in ash and cut off communication lines.

Driving the news: The eruption triggered tsunami warnings across Tonga's islands and in other regions, including the West Coast of the U.S. and New Zealand.

North Korea launches 4th suspected missile test this month

A news broadcast in Seoul, South Korea, of an apparent North Korean missile test on Monday morning local time. Photo: Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images

North Korea's military fired "two suspected short-range ballistic missiles" eastward from Pyongyang on Monday morning local time, per South Korean and Japanese officials.

Why it matters: The fourth such launch since Jan. 5 comes days after North Korea's military warned of "stronger" action if the U.S. moved to have more sanctions imposed on the country.