Comment Picture this dystopian scenario. A robotic jet aeroplane takes off on a bombing mission. But this is not one of the "Predator" or "Reaper" drones in use today above Afghanistan - there's no human pilot in constant control as there is with those, and once the jet is in the air there's no way for human commanders to communicate with it.
The jet flies along at high speed for hours, hugging the ground and weaving through valleys to avoid being picked up on radar. It navigates using various different means. It can make use of the signals from GPS satellites in the sky, like a common-or-garden satnav, but it is not dependent on them: it also has terrain-matching radar and inertial guidance.
The jet completes its journey and decides without any human input at all whether it has in fact found its designated target. Assuming the robot decides affirmatively, a massive warhead plummets out of the sky on that spot and colossal explosive destruction is unleashed. No human being presses a button or pulls a trigger to allow this.
The day of the autonomous weapon has dawned.
Fanciful? No indeed. Why, we read in the Guardian:
"Killer robots" that could attack targets autonomously without a human pulling the trigger pose a threat to international stability and should be banned before they come into existence, the United Nations will be told by its human rights investigator this week.
That will be rather difficult, however. The autonomous robot jet bomber as described already exists: it is the Tomahawk cruise missile, and it went into service in the 1980s. Most US warships and submarines are armed with it (Royal Navy submarines carry it too). It has been used in anger on many occasions: hundreds of Tomahawks were launched in the opening stages of the 2011 Libyan intervention to suppress Colonel Gadaffi's air defences, and British and US forces have used them against many other targets.
There are lots of other weapons of this sort, likewise in use for decades, generally classified as cruise or anti-shipping "missiles". Most of them, however, actually function as robotic jet aeroplanes for most of their flight. All of them acquire their targets autonomously by various methods, without any communication with the humans who launched them.
The earnest Christof Heyns, UN special rapporteur, is going to need a time machine if he aims to get autonomous weapons banned before they come into existence, then. What's he on about?
In short, he's on about machines which will be familiar to regular Reg readers already: for instance the US Navy's X-47B, an unmanned Stealth jet which could do the same sort of job as a Tomahawk if it were armed (at the moment it is just a prototype intended to see if robo-jets can operate from US Navy aircraft carriers). Blighty's Taranis demonstrator - as and when it actually gets in the air - could evolve into something providing a similar capability, if desired. There's also the Euro "Neuron" project.
It's quite true that it would be an obvious thing, when using such robo-jets, to send them off on a strike mission to hit a target without any bandwidth-gobbling, potentially detectable-by-the-enemy video feeds and constant person-in-the-loop as seen in the Predators and Reapers of today. But we're already doing that on a routine basis with Tomahawks, so it's not a new idea.
The only technically new things about the X-47B et al is that they have Stealth, making them a bit harder to detect, and they are meant to come back to base after delivering their warheads. The autonomous-targeting bit is old hat.
So is the idea that there ought to be a ban on some kind of new and terrible "killer robots", in fact. Various poorly informed do-gooders, lawyers (and occasionally, fruitcakes) have been trying to stoke up the idea for years - see "Related Stories" below.
This latest push is, of course, motivated primarily by some people's dislike of the current US programme of assassinations aimed at jihadi terrorists in various nations of the Middle East, generally carried out by Reaper or Predator drones. Heyns is special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, not on robots or weapons. As with other campaigners before him, his ignorance of military technology has led him to argue for a pre-emptive ban on something which is already in widespread use.
One can approve or disapprove of the ongoing CIA "drone" strikes as one wishes, of course. But it's always amazed us here on the Reg killer robot desk that people get so worked up about the relatively surgical and carefully targeted drone campaign and ignore the colossal, devastating manned bombing offensives delivered by US and allied air forces in recent years, which by our estimates have killed anywhere from 10 to 100 times as many people. ®