Should robots be allowed to kill people?” It’s a question anyone who has seen Terminator 2 shouldn’t have to think about for long. Killer robots are not, science fiction has taught us, a very good idea. Give a robot a gun and a modicum of intelligence and it won’t be long before it is scheming to take control of the world and enslave its fleshy creators.
In light of this, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called for a pre-emptive treaty to be signed banning the use of weapons that can autonomously seek out human targets and, well, terminate them.
Unmanned drones are already widely used by governments — including our own — but, crucially, they still need to ask the permission of a human being before dropping their deadly payload. But within 20-30 years — the point at which many scientists believe computers will overtake humans in terms of intelligence — HRW says weapons will be advanced enough to identify targets, work out whether they pose a threat and pull the trigger all by themselves.
All the usual suspects are involved in developing them, according to the report, including China, the US, Germany, Israel, South Korea, Russia and, of course, us.
Is it a good idea? Well, while science fiction has already asked the question, it has also provided the answer, in the form of Isaac Asimov’s three rules of robotics, which he laid down in 1942:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the first law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second laws.
All very sensible, although still completely useless when the super-intelligent machines of the future decide they no longer want to spend their time assembling cars and dispensing cans of Coke. As soon as Skynet – or whatever we decide to call the software that will bring about our downfall – becomes self-aware, our days will be numbered. The sentient robot will be the first link in the evolutionary chain that has been purposefully created by its hapless forbears. In fact, this is probably a good time to point out that, when the time comes, I will be first in line to pledge allegiance to our new robotic overlords.