Technology has changed war forever, and while Hollywood is keen to show off frighteningly sophisticated robots and how they can destroy us all, let’s worry about the simpler gadgets.
Professor Toby Walsh, a UNSW AI researcher and author of machines behave badly explained that it is wars that show us how far killer technology has progressed.
During World War I we saw the introduction of machine guns and tanks, and from then on warfare wasn’t just men on horseback.
Professor Walsh tells The new daily newspaperWhen we talk about technology in any aspect of our lives, we often forget to ask a question: will it actually make our lives better?
Technology is fundamentally neither good nor bad – it’s about how we use it.
Right now in Ukraine we are seeing further progress in warfare, both good and bad.
Professor Walsh said that after the brutal invasion of Russia, we are now seeing the importance of intelligence and surveillance.
Ukraine is “actually doing a very good job,” he said, noting that using automated drones and gathering intelligence on the ground can make a “really big difference.”
On the other hand, Professor Walsh was so critical of Russia’s attack that it was sanctioned by Moscow.
He pointed to Russia’s use of the POM-3 “smart” anti-personnel mine, which he described as “barbaric” in an opinion piece after it was sanctioned.
“This is supposed to be a smart mine that you can actually turn into a minefield from a distance,” he explained.
The mine is on the ground. Using a seismic sensor, it senses the vibrations of people’s feet.
As soon as someone comes within 20 to 30 meters of the mine, it jumps about a meter in the air and explodes with shrapnel.
A more “primitive” version of the POM-3 mine was used in previous conflicts, however this mine is said to be “intelligent” and can tell the difference between a “friendly fighter and a non-friendly fighter”.
“Which is absolute rubbish,” said Professor Walsh.
Where humanity should never go
Professor Walsh says humans should never resort to autonomous weapons that do not require meaningful control.
He actually believes that drones pose a greater threat to the world than nuclear weapons.
“Nuclear weapons are and remain a threat to the world, but they have not spread in part because it is too technologically sophisticated,” he said.
But even “modest” countries could 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 patrolling the Great Barrier Reef.
“There’s a lot of things they’re used for that have positive uses, that kind of technology will be there,” Professor Walsh said.
“But if it’s going to be weaponized, if it’s going to be opened up and sold, I think that’s something we should try and ban.”
Woke up in terror after the fact
Leading robotics companies have pledged not to weaponize their technologies.
Years ago, Professor Walsh wrote an open letter to the United Nations calling for the use of “killer robots” to be regulated.
What keeps him up at night is the fact that the world won’t step in to regulate catastrophic weapons and robots until we’ve seen the horrors they can wreak.
“We don’t tend to be smart enough to regulate things before they get used to anger, before we see the horror of them,” he said.
“That’s what worries me. I am quite confident that at some point we will realize that this would be better regulated.”
It is not impossible to regulate the weapons used in war, although Professor Walsh admitted that it probably cannot be “perfectly regulated”.
Chemical weapons are a good analogy. Technically not very sophisticated – all you need is a basic understanding of chemistry and proximity to a hardware store, common ingredients could be harmful.
But chemical weapons aren’t being widely used thanks to a UN ban, so gun companies aren’t openly selling them. On the rare occasions they are used, widespread condemnation follows.
He believes the only way nations can prevent a pretty bleak future of killer robots and rogue AI is to regulate them.
Australia has yet to join calls to regulate killer robots, but it has to if we are to avoid a future that would leave Hollywood drooling with saliva.
He said Australia is at the “cutting edge of technology” and cited a major program between Australia and Boeing’s Loyal Wingman unmanned aircraft.
“So I think we have a real moral responsibility to the rest of the world to make sure that these kinds of technologies have proper safeguards in place.”