The Use of AI and Robotics in Weapon Systems
By Tai Wei Lim

The Use of AI and Robotics in Weapon Systems

Apr. 23, 2018  |     |  0 comments

Many artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics technologies, including the cutting-edge ones, are dual use technologies. They have civilian and military applications. Besides defence contractors in the military industrial complex developing high tech robotic weapons, the same technology can be developed for civilian use, commercialized, and then exported to other countries. Even the humble robotic carpet cleaner has technologies initially connected with military robots. The combination of military and civilian applications makes a strong justification for the development of such technologies.


New technologies can also bring military applications to new heights. The X-41 Common Aero Vehicle Falcon program is a glimpse of the future. It has broad application potential. The X-41 operates like a missile that can fly at high altitude and carry nuclear and non-nuclear warheads. It can strike with lethal force if necessary, fly at high altitudes almost reaching space without detection, and return back to the missile base without delivering its warhead payloads if there is no need to or if there is a change of mind about the target.


Besides the skies, a ground-based combat robot is typically fitted with a range of ammunition from non-lethal to armor-penetrating bullets. Some of the world’s most dangerous locations can be patrolled by such robots in the near future, including for example the Demilitarized Zone located between North and South Korea or even long porous borders where drug gangs and smugglers operate. But the use of robots and drones may raise ethical questions. Some ask if it is legal or lawful for robots to kill humans, especially if it is done autonomously without tangible human inputs.


The question then becomes who pulls the trigger when it comes to robotic weapon systems and the criteria used for the kills. Others have questions about the danger of collateral damage from robot strikes. Civilians including women and children often generate ill feelings when they are part of collateral damage. These are real ethical questions that must be dealt with carefully for the future of humanity and its survival, which must also be counterbalanced by the advantages of deploying robots at the battlefield to prevent human casualties and save lives. It is not an easy equation to decipher or resolve.


The future deployment of robots is inevitable. It will save human lives, and warfare can be more precise and surgical to minimize damage to human infrastructure. At the same, ethical rules of engagement and incremental phasing-in of robotic technologies to enable humans to adapt to changes is also extremely important. One must also recognize the limits of robot deployment as some assignments in the battlefield are still better executed with a human touch. Besides the ground level, many are already familiar with the drones in the skies that operate in danger zones to identify terrorists and eliminate them using powerful Hellfire missiles.


The Predator UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) is probably the most well-known of these robots, having flown missions in the Middle East to eliminate terrorists. Predator drones can also be used for monitoring and surveillance missions. Unmanned aircraft, drones, and autonomous weapon systems are already a reality. The world has seen how Predator drones can use facial recognition technologies to identify potential terrorists and strike their vehicles using Hellfire missiles that can melt objects up to 1,000 degrees Celsius. These UAVs can fly for days, unlike human pilots who will experience fatigue from prolonged flying.


The advent of AI or non-AI enabled robotic systems will speed up warfare and increase the ability to wage war over extended periods of time, since robots do not get distracted, tired, or unfocused easily, unlike human soldiers.

Compared to nuclear weapons which are typically far larger and have radiation leaks or signatures that can be detected, robotic units or AI are sometimes miniaturized, and are even weightless in cyberspace. If one looks at the track record of humankind trying to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the record is far from perfect. Just look at the example of Kim Jong Un. Even with sophisticated spy satellite technologies, international sanctions by the United Nations, and the near-collapse of the North Korean economy, Pyongyang has chugged along and is now a de facto nuclear power with both atomic and hydrogen devices that are not recognized by the nuclear club or the international community.


The other worry is what happens if these weapons fall into the wrong hands, like terrorists, anarchists, criminal organizations, rogue nations, extremists/fanatics, and dictators/autocrats. In the hands of such groups and individuals, ethical concerns will be ignored and they can operate without the constraints placed on states by their people (in liberal democratic systems), the international community (e.g. the United Nations) and/or law enforcement agencies. Other than rogue states, most states are accountable to their people, the international community, and their neighbors.


Yet at the same time, AI together with robotic technologies offer humankind the option to fight conflicts and carry out dangerous assignments without the loss of human lives. It also offers gender equality, as physical strength is not crucial for operating weapon systems. Cognitive skills and nimbleness in remote control may be more important skills for the warfare of the future than traditional brute strength. In some ways, these robots may do work that is considered dangerous and demanding, like defusing bombs.


Robots can also be advanced scouts to search an area for bombs, ambushes, and other invisible or concealed dangers before sending humans into the battlefield. The decision in terms of reducing the loss of human lives just makes the use of robots highly appealing. In other words, robots and AI have the potential to save a lot of human lives. And because many of them are built with precision targeting with high levels of accuracy, they also have the potential to hit targets more accurately compared to humans. There may be less collateral damage in future wars. As humans continue to debate the role of advanced technologies, the march of weapon systems development continues on.


In the future, the advent of AI or non-AI enabled robotic systems will speed up warfare and increase the ability to wage war over extended periods of time, since robots do not get distracted, tired, or unfocused easily, unlike human soldiers. That means future wars can potentially end quickly or be sustained indefinitely. The scope of warfare may also go global very quickly, covering the realms of air, sea, land, and cyberspace. Sometimes the speed of such warfare may be faster than what the human mind can process or comprehend, the same challenge that is going to drive many humans out of work in the future.


Drones and robots are also likely to be harder to detect with time as stealth technologies are integrated into their systems. Another difficult-to-detect robotic technology are microbots and nanobots that are difficult to spot with the naked eye. They have the potential to create swarms to eliminate enemy targets. The US Air Force has carried out experiments on swarms by dropping drones from F-18 Hornet fighter jets and have them fly around a selected target. Other future developments are likely to include unmanned submarines, autonomous submarine hunters, fighter drones carried and hosted on aircraft carriers, and more sophisticated bomb disposal robots.