Thursday, March 31, 2016

Killbots ahoy!

Science fiction often goes way beyond where science is at any given moment. But science has a way of catching up.

There’s been huge controversy over the use of remote-controlled drones to kill terrorist and other enemy targets from the air, but at least those devices have a human being sitting behind the trigger. Going the extra step and putting a computer in charge is a hotly discussed ethical topic, with many saying it just shouldn’t happen.

The same issue is emerging in what you might think are very innocuous applications of the concept. For the last few years, Queensland University of Technology has been trialling a submersible robot that can hunt, identify and inject Crown of Thorns starfish with a bile salt solution that quickly and efficiently kills this pest. Trials show the COTSbot is 99.9 per cent accurate, and has the functionality to be turned over to full autonomous operation. But it hasn’t happened yet, nor will it if the UN passes a resolution to ban killbots.

I can see arguments for both sides. Any machine can be weaponised, so why stop technological developments because of what ‘might’ happen? But the existence of such a weaponised machine presents a clear threat to individuals and humanity alike. Science fiction is full of autonomous killing machines, from Fred Saberhagen’s Berserkers to James Cameron’s Terminators. Equally, humans and machines often fight side by side in stories. Who wouldn’t want R2D2 or Bishop from Aliens in their corner?

The UN can legislate all it wants, but the genie may already be out of the bottle. The age of the killbot is almost upon us.

This article originally appeared in the 'Launch Pad' section of Beyond, my free newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Sign up here -

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