Regulate armed robots before it’s too late

In this age of super-rapid technological advance, we do well to obey the Boy Scout injunction: “Be prepared”. That requires nimbleness of mind, given that the ever accelerating power of computers is being applied across such a wide range of applications, making it hard to keep track of everything that is happening. The danger is that we only wake up to the need for forethought when in the midst of a storm created by innovations that have already overtaken us.

We are on the brink, and perhaps to some degree already over the edge, in one hugely important area: robotics. Robot sentries patrol the borders of South Korea and Israel. Remote-controlled aircraft mount missile attacks on enemy positions. Other military robots are already in service, and not just for defusing bombs or detecting landmines: a coming generation of autonomous combat robots capable of deep penetration into enemy territory raises questions about whether they will be able to discriminate between soldiers and innocent civilians. Police forces are looking to acquire miniature Taser-firing robot helicopters. In South Korea and Japan the development of robots for feeding and bathing the elderly and children is already advanced. Even in a robot-backward country like the UK, some vacuum cleaners sense their autonomous way around furniture. A driverless car has already negotiated its way through Los Angeles traffic.

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