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Monday, October 27, 2014

Killer robots are here and we must stop them, expert says

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From “The Terminator” to the Avengers’ upcoming battle with Ultron, pop culture’s parade of killer robots has long expressed fears that modern technology’s marvels might turn against us.

In fact, the killer robots are already here - in the form of military drones and missiles, for now - and so is a movement to ban them by such organizations as the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. So says physicist Mark Gubrud, who appears tonight at a Georgia Peace and Justice Coalition meeting to speak about the “robot arms race” and the growing possibility of “robot armies fighting a war and humans playing no role.”

While campaigning against killer robots may sound like a campy job for Doctor Who, Gubrud tells CL it’s no joke.

“People will throw back at you, ‘That’s just science fiction.’ We actually are doing the exact things science fiction has warned against,” says Gubrud, who issued a pioneering call to ban killer robots way back in 1988.

“Autonomous weapon systems” that make their own decisions about picking targets and squeezing the trigger already exist, and more are in development by the U.S. military. They’re mostly “fire-and-forget” missiles and robo-drones, not metal men with Austrian accents. But the ethical issues are exactly the same as any sci-fi movie nightmare.

“If the operator [can say], ‘Go find Sarah Connor and kill her’…what that shows is, the Terminator is allowed under U.S. policy,” Gubrud says.

One reason Gubrud says he is visiting Atlanta is because such technology is being developed under military contracts right here at Georgia Tech. At a Gold Dome hearing last month on another controversial robo-tech - self-driving cars - one Tech professor joked, “If you ever decide you want to intentionally kill people with this technology, I’m your guy.”

“Georgia’s a hub for military robots,” Gubrud says.

Now a full-time killer robot crusader, Gubrud first got interested in the subject in the 1980s as an intern studying nanotechnology at the Federation of American Scientists. “I proposed at that time we should seek a ban on autonomous weapons - killer robots,” he says.

That doesn’t mean all lethal robots, but those that, in Pentagon terminology, “once activated, can select and engage targets without further human intervention.”

Concern about killer robots increased with the massive use of drones in America’s “War on Terror.” In 2009, a group formed called the International Committee for Robot Arms Control. And now more than 50 organizations, including Human Rights Watch, are part of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

The military and robot-makers are aware of the issue, too. Georgia Tech researchers are among those who have written about killer robot ethics, suggesting they may actually reduce civilian casualties thanks to robots programmed with the Geneva Conventions. And the Pentagon in 2012 issued a policy stating that killer robots must have built-in safeguards.

Gubrud says the Pentagon policy is vague and in practice is promoting robot development and spurring a killer robot arms race with China and Russia. And while robots may make decisions better than humans in predictable situations, human judgment is still better in chaos - or in choosing to start or stop war in the first place, he says.

“Let’s keep humans in control, especially where there’s violence,” he says. “Always at some point [in war], we say the price is too high, the risk is too great. There isn’t any algorithm that could be written down to make those decisions.”

But right now, “we’re losing control,” Gubrud says. He cites a system in development where a group of missiles fired at a fleet of ships will talk to each other to coordinate strategy and choose on their own which vessels to destroy. “They will decide who lives and who dies,” he says.

Ground-based killer robots are likely on the way as well, activists say. One Canadian robot-maker already pledged not to make killer models.

“I think ‘The Terminator’ is a great film,” Gubrud says, but adds that the movie’s threat of a computer surprisingly turning against its creators is unlikely in reality. “Maybe the danger is [a robot] doing exactly what we intended.”

Gubrud speaks tonight at 7 p.m. at the Atlanta Friends Meeting House, 701 W. Howard Ave., Decatur. The Georgia Peace and Justice Coalition also aims to boost killer robot activism as part of the annual School of the Americas protest vigil at Fort Benning next month.

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