Stop intelligent killing machines, now

In 1984, movie-goers sat down to watch what would become one of the most popular blockbusters of all time — “The Terminator.” The film, which centers on the artificial intelligence Skynet’s campaign to exterminate all humans, proposed a scary possibility with unchecked technological advancement. Many thought it was a distant reality, but with today’s rapid development of semi-autonomous killing machines and drones in militaries around the world, how sure can we be sure that a time won’t come when circuits and wires — not humans — make that final decision to kill? On that day when machines can pass final judgement, nothing is to stop them from determining who is a legitimate enemy and who is not. The die must be cast now; proliferation and rapid advancement of these intelligent killing machines must stagnate, or humanity risks falling victim to its own innovation.

The great political philosopher Thomas Hobbes said, “the condition of man…is a condition of war of everyone against everyone.” While an inherent tendency toward war on your fellow man as an element of human nature is hotly debated, no one can deny that in our short time on this planet we have perfected the technique of killing each other. Thus autonomous weapon systems are not unprecedented. They are the next logical step in military development. It is optimal to keep yourself alive while killing the enemy. Drones are the poster boy for this class of intelligent war machines and their use has become widespread. Now, commanders safe at home in the U.S. can carry out strategic strikes on targets halfway around the world.

Drones make us feel safe. They further distance the horrid realities of war from the public consciousness. It comes at a price though. War is already a foreign concept to most Americans whose clearest recollection of something akin to a home front was 9/11. Making the act of engaging in war tactics executable with the push of a button removes the individual both physically and emotionally from its severity. Drones normalize violence. From there it is a slippery slope to the complete detachment from what killing accomplishes.

They also pose a legal issue. Currently no uniform international regulations exist surrounding the technology drones are permitted to carry or areas into which they can cross. The former is determined, within reason, by the country flying the machines. The latter should be respectful of state boundaries but unsurprisingly has not been followed, most notably in Pakistan where the government is vehemently opposed to the frequent U.S. drone strikes.

Without the safety net of a multilateral resolution, it is entirely possible that a mistimed tactical strike — whether from the U.S., Iraq or Nigeria — could quickly escalate into full blown war. And while we continue development of our drone program here in the U.S., other countries that trail our advancements are working on their own. A chaotic future could see countries — corrupt, undeveloped, developed, rich and poor alike — pursuing the military use of drones.

The Teal Group, a defense consulting firm based out of Virginia, estimated in 2013 that the global market for drones would double in the next decade. It is true that in the four years since we have witnessed a steady increase in the amount of drone strikes perpetrated by the U.S., not to mention by seven other countries with significant military drone programs.

If the trend continues, there will be three impending realities in the 21st century: more countries will have access to semi-autonomous weapons and drones; the use of these technologies will increase; and the act of war will increasingly be undertaken through these measures. We are now at a decisive moment. If the world quickly agrees to regulate the proliferation of these technologies, then we may be spared the worst horrors of our own abilities. If not, maybe “The Terminator” steered an unbreakable course 30 years ago.

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