Terminator rising: Killer military robot arms race under way

Can it be that the Terminator movies were right and robots will consume the Earth? Seems that's what one researcher thinks at least.

We are beginning to see the first steps towards an international robot arms race and it may not be long before robots become a standard terrorist weapon to replace the suicide bomber, according to professor Noel Sharkey, from the Royal United Services Institute Department of Computer Science.

The professor made the comments in a keynote address to the RUSI. Indeed robot technology is being rapidly developed. Many nations are now involved in developing the technology for robot weapons, with the US Department of Defense being the most significant player, according to Sharkey.

According to the Unmanned Systems Roadmap 2007-2013 (published in December 2007), the US said it will spend an estimated $4 billion by 2010 on unmanned systems technology. The total spending is expected to rise above $24 billion. Over 4,000 robots are currently deployed on the ground in Iraq and by October 2006 unmanned aircraft had flown 400,000 flight hours.

Currently there is always a human in the loop to decide on the use of lethal force. However, this is set to change with the US giving priority to autonomous weapons - robots that will decide on where, when and who to kill, according to the professor.Others are now embarking on robot weapons programs in Europe and other allied countries such as Canada, South Korea, South Africa, Singapore and Israel. China, Russia and India are also embarking on the development of unmanned aerial combat vehicle. The US DoD report is unsure about the activity in China but admits that they have strong infrastructure capability for parallel developments in robot weapons.

Sharkey, who is known for his expertise in artificial intelligence as well as roles as chief judge on the TV series Robot Wars and as onscreen expert for the BBC´s TechnoGames, said: "The trouble is that we can't really put the genie back in the bottle. Once the new weapons are out there, they will be fairly easy to copy. How long is it going to be before the terrorists get in on the act?"

"With the current prices of robot construction falling dramatically and the availability of ready-made components for the amateur market, it wouldn't require a lot of skill to make autonomous robot weapons." Professor Sharkey is reluctant to explain how such robots could be made but he points out that a small GPS guided drone with autopilot could be made for about $200.

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