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A mock “killer robot” at the launch of a UK Campaign. Photo: CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images
A mock “killer robot” at the launch of a UK Campaign. Photo: CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images

PoliticsApril 15, 2018

The truly killer app literally kills, and NZ has a role to play in fighting it

A mock “killer robot” at the launch of a UK Campaign. Photo: CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images
A mock “killer robot” at the launch of a UK Campaign. Photo: CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images

NZ needs to join those countries that have called for an international prohibition on autonomous weapons and to work with them to make it happen, writes Thomas Nash.

The drive towards artificial intelligence and robots on the battlefield is the kind of seismic shift in military technology not seen since the inventions of gunpowder and nuclear weapons. Yet while big data and privacy have been high on the political agenda, killer robots have largely flown under the radar. People are rightly concerned at Cambridge Analytica manipulating social media to swing the UK toward Brexit and the US towards Trump. Closer to home there’s dismay at immigration algorithms profiling people to be deported.

What hasn’t made it into the mainstream is that weapons manufacturers are gearing up to build autonomous weapons operating in the air, on land and in the sea. The US already has 10,000 armed drones in its inventory. Right now they are operated by human pilots who select the targets and fire missiles at them. Technologically, though, we’re not far away from that function being devolved to the machine. The UK “Taranis” and US “X47B” combat aircraft are in testing, designed to take off, navigate, refuel in mid-air and land, all autonomously. With next generation systems for automated target recognition and algorithms to determine mission parameters, such combat aircraft could be capable of undertaking attacks without meaningful human control. One US research project envisages swarms of aerial drones that carry out “all steps of a strike mission – find, fix, track, target, engage, assess”. That means we launch them, they fly off and kill people and then they come back. Despite how terrifying that might sound, the issue of killer robots hasn’t quite got cut through yet. That might just be about to change.

Last weekend filmmaker Chris Paine premiered a film online called “Do you trust this computer?” It’s compelling viewing on the risks of pursuing digital super-intelligence (if you can get past its procession of educated white males.) Elon Musk paid for free streaming last weekend and it had over 5 million views in the first 36 hours. Musk probably didn’t do this just because he features in it heavily. Along with the late Stephen Hawking, Musk has been a leading voice raising alarm at the prospect of autonomous weapons powered by artificial intelligence and operating beyond human control.

As the UN kicks off its fifth year of meetings on autonomous weapons in a conference room in Geneva this week, the film will no doubt be playing in the background on more than one diplomat’s laptop. The Guardian’s story on this week’s talks was headlined ominously: “Countries spending billions on ‘third revolution in warfare’ as UN debates regulation of AI-powered weapons”. Meanwhile, last Friday, Newshub interviewed Auckland University’s Dr. Paul Ralph about an academic boycott that forced a South Korean University to pull out of a project to develop autonomous weapons.

Things are starting to bubble up to the surface. That’s good because with the scale of investment and pace of development in this field of technology, there’s little time left to stop the emergence of autonomous weapons. In our current climate this will be a major challenge for international disarmament diplomacy. Precedents should give us hope though. Negotiations between the US and Soviet Union to get rid of long range missiles in the 1980s took place at the height of the Cold War. Today, despite nuclear sabre-rattling and the recent use of chemical weapons in Syria, the taboos established in international law against weapons of mass destruction remain strong. There are many more examples of countries coming together to outlaw weapons – from exploding bullets and blinding lasers to landmines and cluster bombs. There’s also a well-organised international campaign, run by New Zealander Mary Wareham, dedicated to a global ban on fully autonomous weapons.

As the world’s only Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control, Winston Peters should be doing everything he can to promote an international law prohibiting killer robots before it’s too late. We’re a small country, but we have a big appetite for principled leadership on the biggest questions facing humanity. This is most certainly one of those questions and our leadership is sorely needed.

Some might say there’s no hope or that nobody would listen to us anyway. To that last point, you might be surprised how keen other countries are to get New Zealand on side during diplomatic negotiations. I’ve seen countries fist bump after signing up New Zealand’s vote at the United Nations. As for those who say there’s no hope in trying to prevent a world of autonomous mechanised slaughter, well, just in case it turns out that we can, I reckon we should give it a crack.

New Zealand has every interest in making the most of AI and technology so that it benefits humanity rather than ushering in our demise. We’re a thriving innovation hub relying increasingly on technology as a crucial link to the rest of the world. Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters should direct New Zealand’s negotiators at the United Nations to join the countries calling for an international prohibition on autonomous weapons and work with them to make it happen.

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