During the last decade robots have begun to permeate everyday life (robotic lawn mowers; floor cleaners, autonomous cars). But closely-related technologies are also beginning to permeate the military. Already US naval ships are defended by autonomous Phalanx anti-missile systems, and Israel is protected by the Iron Dome. And most scientists believe that the widespread deployment of such “killer robots” is not without danger. Reflecting this concern – and in the absence of clear scientific evidence that robot weapons have, or are likely to have in the foreseeable future, the ability to accurately identify targets, or be able to make decisions regarding the proportional use of force – the UK Society for Artificial Intelligence and the Simulation of Behaviour is rightly helping scientists question whether they could meet the strict international requirements for the legal use of force. There is fear and it is real. Mark Bishop is professor of cognitive computing at Goldsmiths.
Robots could make a great difference to our world and better our quality of life, provided that we keep an eye on what they are being used for. There are robots for measuring the melting of the icecaps, detecting chemical pollution of the seas and repairing coral reefs. They can be used for space exploration, cleaning our homes, farming and performing surgery. There are robot cars – legal in two US states – that can drive themselves and there are slightly creepy sex robots. Of course, there are some applications that need to be scrutinised carefully, such as robots to care for children and the elderly and for policing and border control. And the worst development in robotics is for war – the autonomous killer robots currently being developed by the major military powers. But we should remember the positive changes they can make, when used for good. Noel Sharkey is professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield.