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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

45 million Americans under winter storm watches near New England

Computer model projection showing the winds moving around the powerful East Coast storm on Saturday Jan. 29, 2022. Image: https://earth.nullschool.net

Nearly 45 million Americans are under winter weather alerts and warnings from North Carolina to northeastern Maine Thursday night, as a major winter storm threatens the region.

Why it matters: It is predicted to be the biggest blizzard since 2018 to strike the Northeast with more than 2 feet of snow possible in parts of eastern Massachusetts, according to the National Weather Service.

Judge nixes Gulf of Mexico oil leases in climate-focused ruling

Tug boats prepare to tow the semi-submersible drilling platform Noble Danny Adkins through the Port Aransas Channel into the Gulf of Mexico on December 12, 2020 in Port Aransas, Texas. Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

A federal judge on Thursday canceled the Biden administration's late 2021 sale of new oil-and-gas drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico.

Why it matters: The ruling that the greenhouse gas emissions analysis by the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) was insufficient is a win for green groups that challenged the decision, as they seek to curb fossil fuel production.

5 hours ago - World

Zelensky questions U.S. warnings of "imminent" invasion in Biden call

Biden and Zelensky at the White House last October. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty

President Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had a back-and-forth in their call this evening about just how "imminent" the threat of a Russian invasion might be, according to three sources briefed on the call.

Why it matters: Biden has said previously that he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin will probably "move in" to Ukraine, and White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday afternoon that "an invasion could come at any time."