By the Blouin News Science & Health staff

Will killer drone swarms be banned before too late?

by in Research.

A US-made Reaper drone bought by the French military and used for Operation Barkhane, an anti-terrorist operation in the Sahel sits in a hanger, on June 9, 2015 in the French army base in Nianey, Niger. PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images

A U.S.-made Reaper drone bought by the French military in Niger, June 9, 2015. PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images

The International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence 2015 began on Saturday in Buenos Aires, Argentina and will run through Friday. Taking advantage of the event’s media coverage and global attendees, on Tuesday an open letter calling for a complete global ban on offensive autonomous weapons was published. Over a thousand people have signed it, including Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, Steve Wozniak, and numerous AI researchers.

The letter warns that the development of artificial intelligence (AI) has advanced to such a point where the deployment of autonomous weapons is “feasible within years, not decades.” Their development would likely be “the third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear arms,” and would make an arms race “virtually inevitable.”

Since they require no costly or hard-to-obtain raw materials, before long they would become ubiquitous and cheap for all significant military powers to mass-produce. The letter states that without a worldwide ban, “autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow,” and ultimately terrorists and dictators will get a hold of them. The desired international ban is not unprecedented; the letter notes that “chemists and biologists have broadly supported international agreements that have successfully prohibited chemical and biological weapons, just as most physicists supported the treaties banning space-based nuclear weapons and blinding laser weapons.”

Emerging “swarm technology” is of particular concern. Researchers from the Naval Postgraduate School, working with basic fixed-wing autonomous drones that use Wi-Fi to coordinate their actions with each other, currently hold the world record with 30 in the air simultaneously. Fitted with cameras, these could be used for surveillance.

“Or maybe it’s not just about finding the enemy but doing something about it. With swarming you can surround an enemy, target and overwhelm its defenses, so that even if they were able to shoot down 90%, that last 10% can still cause damage…” said P.W. Singer, a think-tank strategist at the New America Foundation.

In this light, the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) demonstrated its aptly-named LOCUST (Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology) program in April. It entails rapid tube-launched autonomous drone swarms that can be used for offensive or defensive missions. “The recent demonstrations are an important step on the way to the 2016 ship-based demonstration of 30 rapidly launched autonomous, swarming UAVs,” said ONR program manager Lee Mastroianni.

Defensive autonomous weapons systems, such as those of SRC Inc. designed to detect and destroy hostile incoming drones, would likely be acceptable. But armed offensive drone swarms would be banned for sure.