This week the United Nations will debate the role of so-called "killer robots" on the battlefield — so called, because robots are currently killing humans on the battlefield, and the next steps in their robo-evolution will have serious consequences for the future of war.
The meeting is taking place as part of the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, a group within the United Nations that tries to single out particularly heinous methods of warfare and restrict their use. Since 1980 the convention has denounced the use of booby traps, landmines, and laser weapons that blind an enemy, as well as bombs that deliver fragments that can't be detected in the body by X-ray examination. Autonomous robot killers (or at least particular versions of them) may be next on their list.
The UN won't be debating the remote-controlled drones that have become a staple of modern American warfare, simply because they still have human operators "in the loop." This week they're only tackling the near-future reality of weaponized autonomous robots and how they might be used ethically.
Professors Ronald Arkin and Noel Sharkey will be the primary instigators of the debate, with opposing viewpoints on what the role of robots on the battlefield should be in the years to come.
Professor Arkin is a roboticist from the Georgia Institute of Technology who has studied the ethics of war-bots for the U.S. Department of Defense. Arkin does not support a ban on the use of unmanned war machines.
Professor Sharkey is an activist with a particular interested in artificial intelligence and robots. Sharkey founded the Campaign Against Killer Robots and, as you can imagine, supports a ban on killer robots.
"Autonomous weapons systems cannot be guaranteed to predictably comply with international law," Prof Sharkey said to the BBC. "Nations aren't talking to each other about this, which poses a big risk to humanity."
Image: From the cover of the Department of Defense's Unmanned Systems Roadmap FY 2011-2036, published in 2011