In the current era of artificial intelligence (AI), the use of robots in the military is no longer an idea relegated to science fiction movies. Today, robots and intelligent machines are increasingly being used in military operations for a wide range of tasks ranging from surveillance, intelligence, reconnaissance, bomb disposal, and search and rescue operations.
But that’s not all. Military professionals are starting to envision future battlefields consisting of intelligent robot teammates that can understand and follow orders without constant supervision thanks to the widespread adoption of IoT technologies.
In this article, we’ll look at the rush to weaponize AI and robotics, the international laws and norms that are to be established which could help to prevent accidents from occurring with potentially devastating consequences, the cybersecurity challenges that militaries are likely to experience.
The weaponization of AI and robotics in defence
In a recent news conference, the head of the UK military hinted that autonomous robots could soon form a quarter of the British military by the year 2030. This move will not only help reduce the number of human soldiers on the ground but also help in combating enemy attacks effectively and efficiently.
The use of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics is quickly becoming a critical part of modern warfare. As such, governments – including the US and the UK– are investing more funding to facilitate research and development of advanced and more intelligent military robots.
While it’s difficult to say exactly how AI will change militaries across the world, nearly 80% of data scientists have argued that artificial intelligence will be the most impactful innovation in tech for the upcoming decade. So, what should we expect?
For one, we should expect AI-equipped military robots to be able to perform nearly any kind of military operations without any human intervention. Militarized robots can utilize algorithms, sensors, and computer programming to be faster, accurate, and more precise than actual human soldiers in a combat zone.
Secondly, the advent of AI and autonomous technologies will help distance human soldiers even further from the battlefield to help reduce the number of casualties. What’s more, these autonomous robots are expected to lower the operating costs of fielding an army of human soldiers in the first place.
The penetration of the Internet of Things (IoT) in military robotics
The importance of information to military commanders across the world cannot be overstated. As such, the military is naturally hungry for tools or technology that will help bolster communication, routing, or data processing. The IoT is one such technology, as it is essentially about connecting disparate objects into larger networks.
While many people view IoT and robotics as two separate fields, the two are actually growing concurrently, which has seen both IoT and robotics communities come together to create a new concept christened the Internet of Robotic Things (IoRT). This new concept brings in a mix of diverse technologies including AI, cloud computing, cloud storage, machine learning and of course IoT.
Under the IoRT concept, intelligent machines or robot soldiers can monitor the events happening around them by gathering data from multiple sensors (embedded and sourced), and communicate with each other wirelessly via IPv6 protocols to decide the next set of actions. IPv6 has a more streamlined routing functionality than IPv4, the previous standard for wireless connection. This permits each robot soldier to store more data, process information faster, and communicate using real-time message routing.
Surprisingly, the military has been slow in adopting this new concept that would knit these communications into interoperable, automated cycles despite it being a driver in connected and machine-to-machine communications such as RFID (radio frequency identification). One of the main reasons behind this slow adoption of IoT is the complex technological and regulatory landscape.
Law and ethics for robot soldiers
While the use of robotic soldiers may have broad advantages, there are concerns too about the use of autonomous weapon systems (AWS) in warfare from the international community and activists. These weapons, which can independently acquire, track, and attack targets, have raised a series of concerns both legally and ethically.
A case in point is that of Google and the US Pentagon. In this case scenario, employees from the tech giant who were working on a drone video analysis software for the Pentagon decided to quit the deal citing fear that their work could be used to commit murder.
Since this incident, the US Department of Defence (DoD) decided to publish a new set of ethical guidelines on the military use of killer robots in warfare. The new guidelines, which align with DoD’s AI strategy of 2018 recommend that AI should be used only if the following five AI ethics principles are adhered to.
The principles include:
- Responsible: When deploying autonomous systems, defence personnel should exercise appropriate levels of care and judgment.
- Equitable: Autonomous systems should be free from inadvertent bias.
- Traceable: AI systems should be transparent to allow all defence personnel to have a clear understanding of the technology including its development process as well as its operation.
- Reliable: AI systems should be tested consistently to ensure that they are reliable.
- Governable: Autonomous systems should be able to deactivate or disengage as soon as they detect that they are about to cause unintended harm.
Another concern is how robotics soldiers rely on networks for communication, which means they are not immune to hacking, bugs, or malware. While these are just a few security concerns, it’s clear that cybersecurity challenges will add monumental risks if robot soldiers are to be adopted by the military.
With generals from multiple countries continuously hinting at the coming of military robots for years, the number of human soldiers on the battlefield is likely to reduce. After all, the main aim of having robotic soldiers in the field is to create smaller and more agile and lethal units.
War is expensive, and according to experts robot soldiers will help cut down the costs of training, equipping, and deploying real human soldiers – not to mention it can help save lives as well. It is clear that AI and robotics offer abundant potential for helping society. However, it’s up to us to know whether to use these capabilities to foster peace and enrich our livelihoods, or start wars and endanger human lives.