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Killer robots: The ‘simple’ technologies that pose a huge threat

Ukraine's air force command has reported 33 missiles fired on the country, with 18 shot down.

Ukraine's air force command has reported 33 missiles fired on the country, with 18 shot down. Photo: AP/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service

Technology has forever changed war, and while Hollywood is set on showcasing terrifyingly sophisticated robots and how they can destroy us all, it’s the simpler devices we should be concerned about.

Professor Toby Walsh, an AI researcher from the UNSW and author of Machines Behaving Badly, explained it is wars that show us just how much killer technology has advanced.

During World War I, we saw machine guns and tanks introduced, and from then on, warfare was no longer just men on horseback.

Professor Walsh told The New Daily, when we discuss technology, in any aspect of our lives, we often forget to ask one question: Is this actually going to improve our lives?

There’s nothing fundamentally good or bad about technology – it’s about how we deploy it.

Right now, in Ukraine, we’re seeing another advance in warfare, both good and bad.

Professor Walsh said following Russia’s brutal invasion we are now seeing the importance of intelligence and surveillance.

Ukraine is “actually doing a very good job”, he said, pointing to the use of automated drones and collected intelligence on the ground can make a “real big difference”.

On the flip side, Professor Walsh has been critical of Russia’s attack, so much so he has been sanctioned by Moscow.

He pointed to Russia’s use of the “smart” POM-3 anti-personnel mine, which he described as “barbaric” in an opinion piece after he was sanctioned.

“This is supposedly a smart mine that you can actually make a minefield for a distance,” he explained.

The mine lies on the ground. Using a seismic sensor it feels for the vibrations of people’s feet.

Once someone is within 20 to 30 metres of the mine, it jumps about a metre into the air and explodes with shrapnel.

A more “primitive” version of the POM-3 mine had been used in previous conflicts, however, this mine is “supposed to be smart” and can distinguish the difference between a “friendly combatant and a non-friendly combatant”.

“Which is absolute rubbish,” Professor Walsh said.

Pictured is the devastation caused by a Russian drone attack

Drone attacks have hammered Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities.

Where humanity should never go

Professor Walsh says humans should never resort to autonomous weapons that don’t require any meaningful control.

He actually believes drones pose more of a threat to the world than nuclear weapons.

“Nuclear weapons are a threat to the world and continue to be a threat to the world, but they haven’t proliferated in part because it’s technically too demanding,” he said.

However, even “modest” countries can become drone superpowers, he says, using Turkey as an example.

Drones can be used to cause destruction, but they can also be used for good – like helping farmers with precision farming or monitoring the Great Barrier Reef.

“There’s lots of things that they’re going to be used for that have positive ends that sort of technology is going to be there,” Professor Walsh said.

“But whether it be weaponised, whether it be opened and sold, I think that’s something that we should try and prohibit.”

Waking up to horrors after the fact

Leading robotics companies have pledged to not weaponise their technologies.

Professor Walsh actually penned an open letter years ago to the United Nations calling for the use of “killer robots” to be regulated.

What keeps him up at night is the fact the world doesn’t step in to regulate disastrous weapons and robots until we have seen the horrors they can inflict.

“We don’t tend to be smart enough to regulate things before they get used in anger before we see the horror of them,” he said.

“That’s the thing that troubles me. I’m pretty confident at some point we’re going to realise that this would be better to regulate.”

It’s not impossible to regulate the weapons used in war, though Professor Walsh admitted it probably can’t be “perfectly regulated”.

Pictured is the United Nations Security Council

Members of the United Nations Security Council meet in New York to discuss the situation between Russia and Ukraine. Photo: Getty

Chemical weapons are a good analogy. Technically not very sophisticated – all one would need is a basic understanding of chemistry and proximity to a hardware store, common ingredients could be used to harm.

But chemical weapons aren’t widely used, thanks to a UN Prohibition, so arms companies don’t openly sell them. In the rare instance they are used, widespread condemnation follows.

He believes the only way nations can prevent a rather grim future with killer robots and rogue AI is by regulating them.

Australia is yet to join calls for killer robots to be regulated, but it must if we want to avoid a future that would have Hollywood salivating at the mouth.

He said Australia is at the “cutting edge of technology”, referencing a major program between Australia and Boeing’s unmanned Loyal Wingman aircraft.

“Therefore, I think we have a real moral responsibility for the rest of the world to make sure the appropriate safeguards are put in place for these sorts of technologies.”

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