U.S. Pentagon Decades Away From Deploying Ethically Murky Fully Autonomous Terminators On Battlefield

Do you want Skynet? Because this is how you get Skynet! The U.S. Military currently deploys a number of robotic weapons systems – vehicles and platforms that can roam the earth or take to the skies, taking humans partially out of the equation. Aerial drones often carry extremely lethal payloads that are tasked with taking out enemy insurgents on the battlefield.

However, military policy has safeguards in place to ensure that these robotic weapons platforms never go “rogue” by firing on friendly targets or innocent civilians. As a result, there’s always a human “behind the trigger” that makes the final call when it comes to firing a weapon. A human should technically have all the relevant information and positive visual ID to engage a target with lethal force, and it also tosses out any ambiguity about who is responsible for a “good” or “bad” kill.

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But we can never say never to a fully autonomous weapons platform according to the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). Autonomous and robotics technologies will only improve in the coming decades, making their physical capabilities, accuracy and decision making skills even more compelling. Aerial drones already keep pilots out of harm’s way, allowing them to stay completely safe in a remote facility. But what about taking the human out of the equation completely?

"These are hard questions and a lot of people outside of us tech guys are thinking about it, talking about it, engaging in what we can and can't do,” says Melissa L. Flagg, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, who works for the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition. “We need to understand and know that it doesn't necessarily need to happen, but we also have to put the options on the table because we are the worst-case scenario guys.”

Flagg brings up a scenario of an autonomous “killbot” being deployed in a “highly competitive, highly contested space” under circumstances where its communications have been cut off with HQ. Does the drone simply sit there like a bump on a log, or does it raise its weapon and go after the enemy guns blazing without official orders?

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But even if the DoD wanted to deploy fully autonomous killbots on the battlefield, it would be decades before before such a dream would become a reality. The military expects to have fully-integrated, semi-autonomous bots fighting alongside human soldiers by the year 2035. And it will be some time after that before killbots that can think and shoot on their own enter the fray.

To get to that point, however, policies will have to change and there will need to be plenty of safeguards in place to ensure the safety of the soldiers that these killbot will be fighting alongside.