We Can Now Build Autonomous Killing Machines. And That’s a Very, Very Bad Idea

Friday, February 6, 2015
By Paul Martin


Clearpath Robotics was founded six years ago by three college buddies with a passion for building stuff. Its 80 employees specialize in all-terrain test rigs like the Husky, a stout four-wheeled robot vehicle used by researchers within the Department of Defense. They make drones too, and have even built a robotic boat called the Kingfisher. But there is one thing they will never, ever build: a robot that can kill.

Clearpath is the first and, so far as we can tell, only robotics company to pledge not to build killer robots. The decision, made last year, was simple, says co-founder and CTO Ryan Gariepy, and in fact it’s even helped the company recruit robot experts who’ve been drawn to Clearpath’s unique ethical stance. That’s because ethical questions are becoming a pressing matter for companies that build robotics systems. You see, we’re already at the dawn of the age of killer robots. And we’re completely unprepared for them.

It’s early days still. Korea’s Dodam systems, for example, builds an autonomous robotic turret called the Super aEgis II. It uses thermal cameras and laser range finders to identify and attack targets up to 3 kilometers away. And the US is reportedly experimenting with autonomous missile systems.

We’re ‘nowhere near ready.’
Military drones like the Predator currently are controlled by humans, but Gariepy says it wouldn’t take much to make them fully automatic and autonomous. That worries him. A lot. “The potential for lethal autonomous weapons systems to be rolled off the assembly line is here right now,” he says, “but the potential for lethal autonomous weapons systems to be deployed in an ethical way or to be designed in an ethical way is not, and is nowhere near ready.”

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