Death by algorithm: the age of killer robots is closer than you think

Kelsey Piper:

A conquering army wants to take a major city but doesn’t want troops to get bogged down in door-to-door fighting as they fan out across the urban area. Instead, it sends in a flock of thousands of small drones, with simple instructions: Shoot everyone holding a weapon. A few hours later, the city is safe for the invaders to enter.

This sounds like something out of a science fiction movie. But the technology to make it happen is mostly available today — and militaries worldwide seem interested in developing it.

Experts in machine learning and military technology say it would be technologically straightforward to build robots that make decisions about whom to target and kill without a “human in the loop” — that is, with no person involved at any point between identifying a target and killing them. And as facial recognition and decision-making algorithms become more powerful, it will only get easier.

Called “lethal autonomous weapons” — but “killer robots” isn’t an unreasonable moniker — the proposed weapons would mostly be drones, not humanoid robots, which are still really hard to build and move. But they could be built much smaller than existing military drones, and they could potentially be much cheaper.