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Scientists Debate Killer Robots at U.N. Conference

Autonomous lethal systems, like drones, are getting more advanced. The laws have yet to catch up.
X-47B drone
The X-47B autonomous, unmanned aircraft, built for the U.S. Navy by Northrop Grumman.

It’s hard to think about autonomous, lethal machines and not imagine the killer robots from the “Terminator” movies. But could hysteria over the robo-pocalypse hold back technology that could save human lives?

That is the question two prominent robotics experts will debate on Tuesday, at the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva.

Autonomous weapons don’t feel panic or anger, meaning that if they were advanced enough, they could potentially limit civilian casualties during combat. On the other hand, computers don’t always work as planned in messy, real-life situations, not to mention they don’t have the ability to weigh ethical dilemmas in their heads.

While this debate plays out, autonomous robots are only getting more advanced. Noel Sharkey, a robotics professor at the University of Sheffield, committed his career to building them for research purposes. He does not believe they belong on the battlefield.

“My biggest concern is that when every nation has this technology, we will start seeing the full automation of warfare,” Sharkey told NBC News.

“Some people propose that this technology will save our soldiers’ lives because we will send in machines to do our fighting for us,” he said. “But that only works if the other side does not have machines, because they will send them in to kill our soldiers.”

“The 'Terminator' sci-fi vision is a red herring, despite its persistent use by the press.”

If the United States started using something like Northrop Grumman’s X-47B drone to take out targets autonomously, he said, it could start an arms race and pressure other countries into sending their own autonomous robots into battle.

While Professor Ron Arkin, from the Georgia Institute of Technology, agrees with the need to be cautious, he does not think that autonomous lethal systems should be completely ruled out for future use.

“We are not talking about systems with free will or moral agency — those will not exist anytime in the near future, if ever,” he wrote. “The “Terminator” sci-fi vision is a red herring, despite its persistent use by the press.”

Nations could limit the robots to only certain wartime scenarios and ban others altogether. Those placed in combat could come programmed with strict rules guiding their behavior.

Ultimately, he said, "robots can potentially comply with international humanitarian law as well or better than human war fighters.”

Sharkey disagrees. Even with safeguards, he said, machines do unpredictable things when confronted with other machines, especially if they are not built by the same people.

“Nobody knows really at all how these different systems will interact with each other,” he said.

There is one thing that they both agree on: The U.N. should pass a moratorium, or temporary ban, on using autonomous weapons until the international community can come to a consensus.

Regardless of who "wins" the debate, U.N. delegates will be paying attention.

"The room will be packed tomorrow," Sharkey said, "the most packed it has been for a CCW meeting ever."