Military Robots Coming

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Russia’s newly established military robot design lab has finally gone into operation, Oleg Bochkarev, deputy head of Russia’s governmental Military-Industrial Commission told ITAR TASS news agency. Russia’s deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin was the first to have announced plans to set up a new laboratory at the Degtyarev arms factory in Kovrov last year planning to attract private investors to experiment and create prototypes that could join the troops if passing tests.

According to Rogozin, the robots will save lives: “We have to conduct battles without any contact, so that our boys do not die, and for that it is necessary to use war robots,” he said. The idea was backed by Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu, who urged engineers to make robots combat ready by 2015-17, instead of initially scheduled 2020.

In 2012, Russia’s Advanced Rsearch Foundation was created to deal with robots, space defense and supersonic technology.

1This January Rogozin claimed the Foundation was working on a super sensitive Avatar-style robot which adjusts to human behavior and which humans can operate from inside. Rogozin, however, urged researchers to generate new ideas, rather than using already existing Western developments.

Robots that can kill people aren’t science fiction anymore: they’re reality. Russia has deployed armed robots, different from drones because they can select targets and decide to fire on them without any human input, to guard its missile bases. Russia wants to expand its robotic capabilities considerably, and it’s likely several other countries do as well. We’re slouching towards a future where robots play a frontline role in combat.

4The armed robots issue is becoming so real, so fast, that 87 countries sat down at a United Nations-convened conference from May 13th to the 15th to discuss banning the things. Those nations, including Russia, China, and the United States, discussed amending the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which 117 countries have accepted, to prohibit the use of armed robots during wartime. A lot of the news coverage on this issue has treated robot arms control as if it’s a joke or a novelty. It’s neither: For over a year, Human Rights Watch has been building a campaign to pressure for banning military robots, arguing that they pose an unacceptable threat to civilian populations. Are they right? Should we be banning what HRW calls “killer robots”?

3The debate about robots in warfare comes down to the question of whether they would make war crimes more or less likely. There are serious arguments on either side. In many ways, this new argument about robots is an extension of much older argument about why war crimes happen and how to prevent them. This isn’t a joke anymore: the debate over military robotics is about preventing horrific abuse of real people.