Today the UN will debate an issue that sounds more like something out of a Terminator movie then the regular trade and governance agreements that send reporters, and some delegates, to sleep.
The issue? Killer Robots. I kid you not.
Now thanks to many years of homicidal mechanoids filling our movie screens and turning up in a fair few novels, it’s hard to discuss the subject without instantly conjuring up images of Terminators, Cylons, ED 209s, Cybermen, or even my personal favourite scary flying death dealer Maximilian from the Black Hole. But whereas these armoured automatons exacted their cruel judgements for our entertainment, the ones being discussed by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva today are far more real. The machines in question are the new breed of drone style military weapons that will have the power to decide their own targets and destroy them without the need for human control. Whereas the normal drones we see in copious use at the moment are essentially remote control weapons, the new automatons will have smart technology to enable them to carry out their duties independently.
Aside from the immediate hysteria of a Skynetesque situation where the robots decide the greatest threat to them is their controllers, the real debate is whether this kind of life or death decision should be given to a machine. Will they be able to differentiate between civilian and military? Will they care? (the answer is no as they are robots after all) And who can be held responsible if an atrocity takes place?
The various defence contractors argue that the devices will save the lives of soldiers who would otherwise have to be sent to the hostile areas. For years the electronic battlefield has been slowly emerging, so the infusion of technology into warfare is obviously inevitable. But some would ask how removing the sight of the horrors of war, and the threat to our own troops, will effect our attitudes towards engaging in armed conflict? If we will suffer no losses to human life then will we enter an age where the rule of the gun is once again the way major countries conduct their business? In the end the soldiers or devices with the weapons in their hands aren’t really the problem or the issue at the heart of the matter. The real question is one of control. Handing it over to machines without conscience or ethics might make for the most effective killing machines the world has ever seen, but could come at a severe cost to the humanity of those that unleash them.