War in Ukraine accelerates global drive toward killer robots

The U.S. military is intensifying its commitment to the development and use of autonomous weapons, as confirmed by an update to a Department of Defense directive. The update, released Jan. 25, 2023, is the first in a decade to focus on artificial intelligence autonomous weapons. It follows a related implementation plan released by NATO on Oct. 13, 2022, that is aimed at preserving the alliance’s “technological edge” in what are sometimes called “killer robots.”

Both announcements reflect a crucial lesson militaries around the world have learned from recent combat operations in Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh: Weaponized artificial intelligence is the future of warfare.

“We know that commanders are seeing a military value in loitering munitions in Ukraine,” Richard Moyes, director of Article 36, a humanitarian organization focused on reducing harm from weapons, told me in an interview. These weapons, which are a cross between a bomb and a drone, can hover for extended periods while waiting for a target. For now, such semi-autonomous missiles are generally being operated with significant human control over key decisions, he said.

Pressure of war

But as casualties mount in Ukraine, so does the pressure to achieve decisive battlefield advantages with fully autonomous weapons – robots that can choose, hunt down and attack their targets all on their own, without needing any human supervision.

This month, a key Russian manufacturer announced plans to develop a new combat version of its Marker reconnaissance robot, an uncrewed ground vehicle, to augment existing forces in Ukraine. Fully autonomous drones are already being used to defend Ukrainian energy facilities from other drones. Wahid Nawabi, CEO of the U.S. defense contractor that manufactures the semi-autonomous Switchblade drone, said the technology is already within reach to convert these weapons to become fully autonomous.

Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s digital transformation minister, has argued that fully autonomous weapons are the war’s “logical and inevitable next step” and recently said that soldiers might see them on the battlefield in the next six months.

Proponents of fully autonomous weapons systems argue that the technology will keep soldiers out of harm’s way by keeping them off the battlefield. They will also allow for military decisions to be made at superhuman speed, allowing for radically improved defensive capabilities.

Currently, semi-autonomous weapons, like loitering munitions that track and detonate themselves on targets, require a “human in the loop.” They can recommend actions but require their operators to initiate them.

By contrast, fully autonomous drones, like the so-called “drone hunters” now deployed in Ukraine, can track and disable incoming unmanned aerial vehicles day and night, with no need for operator intervention and faster than human-controlled weapons systems.

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