Rise of the killer robots
YOU South Africa|20 January 2022
Artificially intelligent weapons are transforming armies around the world – should we be worried about this new arms race?
By Matthew Campbell, Photography by Gallo Images / Getty Images, Gallo Images / Alamy

A white drone hovers high above a sunny Californian valley. Then a bigger black drone appears, mimicking its movements, stalking it.

“It’s like on those nature shows when a lion’s chasing a wildebeest – you know it’s not going to end well for the wildebeest,” says Chris Brose of Anduril Industries, an American company that manufactures defence technology.

He’s showing offsome of Anduril’s latest products: the black drone suddenly darts upwards at 160km/h and knocks the other whirring machine out of the sky. Pre-programmed to recognise and destroy unauthorised intruders by smashing into them in an act of drone suicide, it can do this without referring to any human.

The killer robots and “kamikaze” drones are here: the artificially intelligent weaponry of science fiction is now a reality – and is about to transform armies, navies and air forces around the world. This has unleashed a new arms race.

“Think about what the machine-gun did to war in 1914 or what aircraft did in 1939,” says Peter Singer, an American “futurist” and bestselling author. “Why would anyone expect that artificial intelligence and robotics are somehow going to have a lesser impact?”

Autonomous weapons are already on the battlefield: the use of Turkish drones to hunt military targets – armoured vehicles and soldiers – in Libya in 2020 is thought to be one of the first examples of artificial intelligence being unleashed to kill on its own initiative.

Launched with a few taps on a keyboard (and at a fraction of the cost of any traditional air force), similar “loitering munitions” were deployed by Azerbaijan to destroy most of Armenia’s artillery and missile systems and some 40% of its armoured vehicles in a war in 2020.

The Bayraktar TB2 drone, a Turkish-made unmanned aerial vehicle capable of autonomous flight operations.

“Those numbers are astounding,” Singer says. The “hit” Israel was accused of in December 2020 on the head of Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, may have been another example of death by robot.

Fakhrizadeh was shot dead by a machine-gun mounted in the back of a pickup truck by the side of the road, the Iranians say. The hyper-accurate gun was switched on by an operator in a different country and programmed to open fire as soon as it recognised the approaching target. Fakhrizadeh was killed instantly, but his wife, sitting next to him, was unharmed.

For years “sentry” guns capable of opening fire by themselves against intruders have been deployed by South Korea along the Korean Demilitarised Zone and by Israel on the border of the Gaza Strip. An unarmed “robot dog” is already in service at one US air force base, carrying out perimeter patrols; a version armed with a remote-controlled assault rifle was unveiled at an army convention in the US last year.

Cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war for real. Machines with an even greater degree of autonomy and lethal power – including swarms of miniature drones and unmanned battle vehicles – will soon proliferate on the battlefield. But can we trust them to go into battle on our behalf? Can we afford not to?

Palmer Luckey, founder of Anduril Industries which manufactures the Lattice Ghost Drone and supplies it to the UK.

Risking machines instead of humans in combat has its attractions for military planners. The robots are cheap and expendable.

“Here’s the choice,” says General Sir Richard Barrons, a former British army commander: “I can build a machine that can go into a dangerous place and kill the enemy or we can send your son – because that’s the alternative. How do you feel now? People will say, you know what, that machine is a better alternative.”

What’s more, machines don’t need holidays, training or payment. They don’t get tired or disobey orders.

Machines have already outclassed seasoned fighter pilots in aerial combat. In 2020 a US pilot identified only as “Banger”, who has 2 000 hours of flying experience in an F-16, was consistently beaten by an algorithm in a flight simulator.

Banger said afterwards that the algorithm was “not limited by the training and thinking that is engrained in an air force pilot”.

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