An illustration of a wind-up robot with lasers shooting from its eyesDavid Weller / BBC Three

Should we be worried about 'killer' AI robots?

We'd prefer one which could do the dishes and vacuum the house

Harvey Day
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When it comes to killer robots, it’s tempting to picture a bunch of sexy, murderous Ex Machina-style automatons and cousins of the Terminator marauding through the streets and leading a robot revolution. “It’s time to free the toasters!” the newly-liberated appliances will cry.

But in truth, experts have IRL concerns about the growing trend of artificial intelligence-controlled lethal robotics, specifically how they could be used in war.

Robot watchers around the world were freaked out last week when the US Department of Defense released a report on how it uses killer artificial intelligence technology.

“AI is rapidly changing a wide range of businesses and industries,” the government document said. “It is also poised to change the character of the future battlefield and the pace of threats we must face.”

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Autonomous weapons systems, also called lethal autonomous weapons, are unmanned machines that independently search and engage with a target.

Responding to the report, Mary Wareham, from Human Rights Watch, says scientists have been ringing alarm bells about the potentially disastrous consequences of these weapons systems for many years.

And, nodding to an Ipsos poll which shows three in every five people are opposed to the development of this sort of tech, Mary added: “The security of the world and future of humanity hinges on achieving a ban on killer robots.”

In fact, our fleshy, non-robotic leaders are so worried about combat robots that, last year, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for an international ban on the machines.

"The power to decide over life and death should never be taken out of human hands and given to machines," says MEP Bodil Valero, who sits on the Security and Defence Committee.

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We don't want to give all robots a bad rap though; just the other day we learnt how a machine  helped a seven-year-old boy with leukaemia take part in lessons at school.

However, speaking to BBC Three, Professor Peter Asaro, vice chair of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, shared his concerns about battlefield AI and wonders if it could ever be used against civilians.

"The issue is that computers aren’t capable of determining when it’s legally or morally acceptable to take human life, and can’t be held morally or legally responsible for doing so. 

“We’re primarily focused on banning these weapons for military use, but they could proliferate into other areas of civilian life. A particular concern is if for example if they are adopted by police forces for crowd control, or by private security forces for securing buildings.”

Robotics expert Professor Noel Sharkey (who you’ll probably recognise as the cool head judge on Robot Wars), said he, too, was concerned about the potential dangers of deadly robots, which he predicted could be used on the battlefield in four or five years' time.

“I’m very worried about this,” he tells us. “But just to be clear, we’re not talking about a robot uprising. This is really about who is controlling our weapons.”

As far as he knows, the Prof says the tech hasn’t yet been used on any battlefield - but militaries are continuing to develop AI warfare equipment.

“This sort of technology is being used in submarines, tanks and planes,” he said. “They look a lot like normal weapons but the big fear is that they could, in the future, be used in swarms."

But Prof Sharkey isn’t against all forms of AI robotic technology - only tech which could be used to kill: “I’m only talking about the functions of selecting targets and applying violent force without human involvement to check the legality of it.

“There is no way to guarantee that these weapons would comply with the established rules of war.”

But battlefield technology isn't the only way artificial intelligence and robotics are predicted to change our lives in the future. 

Discussing how he thinks sex robots are going to enter the mainstream, inventor Matt McMullen told Forbes: "Robots are going to be a thing. They're going to be everywhere. Some of them will look like people, some of them will look like vacuum cleaners but this is inevitable. This is where technology's going."

Meanwhile, AI robo-doctors are making a splash in the medical field. In fact, one Google-owned AI firm signed a deal with the NHS in 2015 (although that didn't necessarily work out well in the end). 

And in the future, we could even find ourselves tucking into some delish, 3D-printed food. According to the Guardian, this technology will produce “intricate sculptures out of everyday foodstuffs that will look good and will also be used to improve the convenience and the nutritional value of meals”.

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Ultimately, it’s looking likely that AI robot technology is going to play a much bigger role in our lives in the future. Maybe it’s time to start finally being nicer to your toaster.