back to article UN to call for 'pre-emptive' ban on soulless robot bomber assassins

Picture this dystopian scenario. A robotic jet aeroplane takes off on a bombing mission. But this is not one of the "Predator" or "Reaper" drones in use today above Afghanistan - there's no human pilot in constant control as there is with those, and once the jet is in the air there's no way for human commanders to communicate …

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  1. Tanuki
    WTF?

    I'm reminded of a decade or so back when some part of the Vast Military/Industrial Complex invented a laser-weapon which was intended to blind enemy combatants.

    Various of the usual suspects [peace groups, United Nations, 'development' charities etc] kicked up a big fuss about how deeply ghastly and truly 'inhumane' such a weapon would be.

    "OK" said the representatives of the Vast Military/Industrial Complex, "In that case we'll just continue to use lead and blow the enemy's brains out in the traditional fashion".

    1. Aitor 1

      Blinding laser

      Blinding laser is worse than bullets.

      Just like gas attacks, same league.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Blinding laser

        Not sure about that, I'd rather be blind than dead....

        But I agree they should be banned, more because they would me more likely to be used, less restraint would be shown... Now some kind of phaser that can knock someone out without killing them, thats what we need!

    2. David Hicks
      Thumb Down

      The possibility of mass blinding of bystanders seems to have been a driver there.

      It's good that laser anti-personnel weapons are banned.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      When you are being shot at you have a chance of avoiding death. Blinding everyone at a touch of a button is inhumane, you might as well drop an atomic bomb on them instead.

      Have you not seen sci-fi depictions of what mass blindness would be like? Day of the Triffids for example.

      1. Wzrd1

        I've read the classified military reports on the weapons. Even the proponents weren't crazy about the idea of permanently disabling thousands of people, bystanders and enemy alike, not to mention occasional blue on blue events.

        Frankly, I'm glad that they were banned. The only good thing to come out of their development was some decent defenses against laser devices.

    4. asdf Silver badge
      Megaphone

      f__k the UN and drones too i guess

      Not to defend the whole end run around due process that is drone killings but I wonder if the UN is doing this to get people to quit talking about how their workers killed 8000 people in Haiti with cholera that has been in the news lately (honestly Nepal quit trying to help, 3rd world countries should help themselves first). They did more harm than good after the Haitian earthquake and there is nothing those UN Euro bureaucrats want to see happen less than for the courts to take away the hard earned money they themselves extorted out of taxpayers around the world.

      1. asdf Silver badge

        Re: f__k the UN and drones too i guess

        The worst part is the stupid UN wants two billion from member states to fix its own f__kup. Yeah good luck with that. Times are a bit tough and money is a bit tight to being giving to Euro bureaucrats to do nothing but talk about things in some resort in Monaco or hell even in New York.

        1. Wzrd1

          Re: f__k the UN and drones too i guess

          In other words, to hell with the people whose nation was shattered by a natural disaster because the UN screwed up relief.

          May you receive the same level of mercy that you desire to accord others in your time of need.

          1. asdf Silver badge

            Re: f__k the UN and drones too i guess

            >In other words, to hell with the people whose nation was shattered by a natural disaster because the UN screwed up relief.

            Not all all. Haiti deserves a helping hand. But not by the UN who has shown all they do is talk, gobble up money, and at best do nothing and often make things worse. NGOs are the way to go there. Still honestly I would rather give to charity closer to home. These days don't have to look far to find someone that needs help.

      2. Wzrd1

        Re: f__k the UN and drones too i guess

        In the news lately?! Wow, but you have a glacial time sense.

        That was news well over a year ago, as the cholera was brought to Haiti by Nepalese forces who were sent to help Haiti out.

        Meanwhile, the aid was so utterly ineffective as to nearly be non-existent.

        As for due process, when are all of the old allied powers going to apologize to Germany for bombing a hell of a lot of a city just to hit one leader or military target during WWII? That was, in the view of those who proclaim drone strikes on terrorists as extra-legal summary execution, the very same thing on a far more massive scale.

        It's called war. It isn't precise, it is far from pretty. Indeed, I far prefer wars to be damned ugly. It helps prevent idiots from declaring one every ten minutes, notwithstanding Bush the Lesser.

        1. asdf Silver badge

          Re: f__k the UN and drones too i guess

          >In the news lately?! Wow, but you have a glacial time sense.

          BBC released a report in the last few days showing how the program the UN announced last year in Haiti to fix the cholera mess they made (and deflect blame) has been a total failure. The UN turned around and blamed it on everyone not giving them more money.

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Autonomous weaponry

      I have no problem with it so long as they are pointed at the worlds worst aggressor during the beta test phase, namely the United States of America.

      1. asdf Silver badge

        Re: Autonomous weaponry

        Don't worry it will be but by our security services looking to keep us "safe". Nothing to hide, nothing to fear and all that jazz.

  2. Qwelak
    Mushroom

    Not sure I get this

    I always thought that a missile like the tomahawks etc are launched with a preset target which it then autonomously flies to and impacts.

    The report as I saw seemed to be referring to re-usable robot craft capable of many missions and capable of selecting their own target rather than a specific assigned target.

    I may have misunderstood but I think the UN may be referring to re-usable craft rather than fire once.

    PGB.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Not sure I get this

      Exactly - a cruise missile is just a naval bombardment on steroids

      This is a remote install minefield.

      Send a drone to loiter over an enemy camp (or wedding party, or village in Gaza). It's programmed to shoot/missile/bomb any target (or women collecting water) that appears on the street

      At the end of the news cycle you move the drones to the next village.

      1. Naughtyhorse

        Re: or wedding party, or village in Gaza

        Surely the point is that the kind of poor decision making that lies at the heart of wedding party/blue on blue attacks is pretty much always down to a bad choice made quickly by a gung ho kid high on adrenalin. Seems pretty reasonable to me - from a tactical standpoint;

        planes better than infantry - less casualties (our guys... of course), less collateral damage.

        drones better than planes - likely much less casualties (again, our guys), even less collateral damage.

        totally autonomous airstrikes - no casualties, no collateral damage (potentially)

        Of course giving the fuckwit at the end of pennsylvania avenue a way to distract his 300 million serfs with a big bang in someplace they have never heard of with absolutely NO downside....

        Big Mistake.

        1. This post has been deleted by its author

        2. Wzrd1

          Re: or wedding party, or village in Gaza

          "planes better than infantry - less casualties (our guys... of course), less collateral damage."

          Aircraft can't cordon and search and most certainly cannot clear a building. You still need infantry.

          "drones better than planes - likely much less casualties (again, our guys), even less collateral damage."

          Funny how the neighbors to the house getting blown up are upset about their house falling on them. I've personally witnessed such things and do call it collateral damage. A bomb, be it a missile, iron bomb, JDAM, etc is still imprecise due to its warhead size.

          "totally autonomous airstrikes - no casualties, no collateral damage (potentially)"

          See the above and also consider, one has to figure out how to let the drone figure out what is a valid target and what is not.

          In that, I see great difficulty.

    2. TeeCee Gold badge
      WTF?

      Re: Not sure I get this

      ....the UN may be referring to re-usable craft rather than fire once.

      So the idea is to keep countries that cannot afford to chuck robotic missiles away out of the autonomous warfare business?

    3. twelvebore
      Coat

      Re: Not sure I get this

      So the UN is making a stand against recycling??!

    4. Matt Bryant Silver badge
      Pirate

      Re: Not sure I get this

      "......capable of selecting their own target rather than a specific assigned target....." Acoustic homing torpedoes have been in use since the tail end of WW2. The air-dropped version was completely self-guiding, selecting a target by acoustics and homing on it. But then I suppose trendy "freedom fighters" don't have submarines.....

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Not sure I get this

        Sinking merchant shipping without warning was one of the war crimes Admiral Dönitz was charged with at Nuremberg. So unless your homing torpedoes can stop, put up their country's flag, wait for the crew to get into lifeboats and then sink the ship - you might be in trouble.

        Unless of course you are on the winning side!

      2. Wzrd1

        Re: Not sure I get this

        Torpedoes weren't a submarine only weapon. Remember torpedo boats?

      3. Interceptor

        Re: Not sure I get this

        There was the US-developed Kettering "Bug" cruise missile from 1918 - worked with a mechanical clock/gyro affair and was propeller driven. About as successful as a test project could be early on (2 of 6 successes with one set of tests, 4 of 11 with another). Seems the Army was worried about it going awry over allied troops, plus the end of the war put it out of consideration for acquisition...

      4. MrPatrick
        FAIL

        Re: Not sure I get this

        " But then I suppose trendy "freedom fighters" don't have submarines....."

        ...

        I think you'll find, brains, that you don't get a huge amount of civilian submarines.

        You do get lots of civilian cars/trucks that could be mistaken for enemy combatants though...

        1. Matt Bryant Silver badge
          FAIL

          Re: MrPatrick Re: Not sure I get this

          "I think you'll find, brains, that you don't get a huge amount of civilian submarines....." Oh dear, it seems you were so quick to bleat you missed my sarcastic implication that the UNHRC's dictatorial members might actually be more worried about the impact of improved US drone capability in light of their support and funding of the terror groups that US drones are often used against. And let's not mention their terror that improved drones could lead to more "regime change" - nothing upsets a dictator more than the chance he will be on the end of a Western "intervention".

          ".....You do get lots of civilian cars/trucks that could be mistaken for enemy combatants though..." Yeah, 'cos all those "freedom-fighters" all wear uniforms and follow international laws on warfare, right? Current meat sack pilots have rules of engagement, it will not be too impossible to program the same into drones. Indeed, drones should be better as they cannot fall foul of human desires for vengeance or a predisposition to see what they want to see. Like you are determined see the worst due to your socio-political blinkers.

    5. Charles Manning

      Preplanned targets != targets of opportunity

      Lewis has certainly dropped the ball in not spotting the difference.

      A cruise missile does indeed only fly to its pre-programmed target. While its flight is autonomous it is not making any kill/no-kill decisions. Those decisions were made by a meatsack before launch.

      Whether or not the vehicle destroys itself (cruise missile) or returns (UAV) is largely irrelevant.

      Since the 1980s or so there have been missiles and torpedoes that select their own targets. For example the acoustic torpedoes that can be dropped into the sea to identify and destroy targets while being smart enough to not destroy your own subs. In the 1980s there were also tank killer missiles that would look for something that resembled an enemy tank and then autonomously decide to destroy it.. These applications have very constrained parameters controlling the decisions they make.

      It would seem that what the UN is talking about are drones that just fly patrols/missions without preset targets and just identify and attack targets of opportunity.That potentially makes for some hard decisions to get right. eg. Is that column of enemy soldiers a legitimate target or are they a column of POWs already captured?

      1. JimC Silver badge

        Re: hard decisions/legitimate targets

        Nothing new about that either. I understood from my father that even in 1951 it was impossible to distinguish an oxcart containing ammunition from an oxcart containing the rice crop when you were a few hundred feet up in a Fairey Firefly with people shooting at you. An automated system might even be better at getting the identification right than the mk1 eyeball.

    6. Wzrd1

      Re: Not sure I get this

      Some models did have self-targeting for naval targets. It was launched on a general bearing and sought the enemy vessel. The same is true of the harpoon missile.

      The same is quite true of many torpedoes, for they can be snap launched and search for a target. That technology existed all the way back to WWII.

      Dude's gonna need a serious time machine!

  3. Aitor 1

    They do have different capabilities

    They are supposed to be able to:

    -Hit moving targets

    -Identify targets of opportunity

    -Identify main target.

    It is different sending missile to some coordinates than sending a target and expected coordinates.

    As for the rest, I agree with you.

  4. Tegne
    Terminator

    This doesn't go far enough

    They should also ban them from time travel.

  5. Richard Wharram
    WTF?

    So it's OK

    As long as the robot jets are Kamikaze but not if they fancy a trip home afterwords?

    *boggle*

    1. Richard Wharram

      Re: So it's OK

      Afterwards sorry.

  6. Tony Haines

    There is potentially a difference.

    Perhaps the distinction they're making is that cruise missiles attack stationary targets. Bunkers, buildings, bridges or other infrastructure. Or mobile stuff which is known to be parked at a particular position. The target is designated by humans ahead of time.

    However, a truely autonomous weapon would decide on its own targets during the mission. So it could hit mobile targets like tanks, personnel carriers, infantry, ships &c.

    I'm not an expert, but that seems like a decent distinction.

    Whether banning weapons of war is a good idea or not I'm unsure. Why not ban everything, so soldiers have to fight unarmed, hand to hand?

    1. James 36

      Re: There is potentially a difference.

      cos sooner or later someone will pick up a stone and off we all go again

      1. Steven Roper
        Joke

        Re: There is potentially a difference.

        "cos sooner or later someone will pick up a stone and off we all go again."

        And as soon as someone so much as picks up a stone on a field of conflict you charge them with war crimes. Simples!

        1. MrPatrick

          Re: There is potentially a difference.

          And as soon as someone so much as picks up a stone on a field of conflict you vaporise them from orbit with your automated PeaceSat.

    2. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Coat

      Re: There is potentially a difference.

      "Whether banning weapons of war is a good idea or not I'm unsure. Why not ban everything, so soldiers have to fight unarmed, hand to hand?"

      Naked?

      1. Oninoshiko
        Joke

        Re: There is potentially a difference.

        because I'm pretty sure requiring all solders to be double amputees would me some objections!

    3. SkippyBing Silver badge

      Re: There is potentially a difference.

      'However, a truely autonomous weapon would decide on its own targets during the mission. So it could hit mobile targets like tanks, personnel carriers, infantry, ships &c.'

      Most naval missiles already do that, you point them in the general direction of the target and when they get there they search for the first thing that looks like a ship near where you said one was. It does rather depend on the situation not changing too dramatically in the time it takes the missile to get there if you're not going to sink the cruise liner full of nuns and orphans...

      1. MrPatrick

        Re: There is potentially a difference.

        Its fairly easy to spot a huge metal object floating on a flat sea, as opposed to distinguishing that group of vehicles to this one.

        1. Matt Bryant Silver badge
          FAIL

          Re: MrPatrick Re: There is potentially a difference.

          "Its fairly easy to spot a huge metal object floating on a flat sea, as opposed to distinguishing that group of vehicles to this one." Yeah, and civilian shipping has never been sunk "by accident"? But what am I saying, the people you are so concerned about TARGET civilian transportation, such as the MS Achille Lauro hijacking. Shall we talk about their deliberate suicide bombing of buses, trains and aircraft as well? Go buy a clue.

  7. Ian 62

    Dont they already exist..and not just cruise..

    Believe there are already bombs of this type.

    Dropped from an aircraft they float down under parachute, scanning for tanks beneath them.

    If they detect armour, woosh boom.

    If they dont detect armour they fall to the ground and sit as landmines.

    The point being, they decide if what they sense is a tank or not.

    Also, arent there automated guns scattered in the DMZ? deciding if movement around them is a human or not?

    1. Danglebert Humperdink
      Mushroom

      Re: Dont they already exist..and not just cruise..

      Would that be a CBU-97? The 'skeets' are are supposed to disable under either when below 15m or timeout after a while otherwise it would be counted as a cluster bomb under UN rules.

      It could also be argued something such as our flying robotic overlords making a decision is better than the Cruise Missile hitting with pin-point accuracy only to find that the target isn't valid since launch. Just fit a big red self-destruct button near one of them non-pilot... erm... pilots we're now training: kaboom!

      1. Naughtyhorse

        Re: Dont they already exist..and not just cruise..cluster bomb

        good job they are illegal - it would be awful if they were ever deployed!

        especially if the people responsible refused to acknowledge international law.

        Doh!!

  8. Tikimon Silver badge
    Meh

    Kill your enemy safely, 500 years on

    I can't help but think this is a new iteration of a very old argument. The first firearms were lambasted as uncivilized, while hacking bits off each other with sharp things was fine. That's the whole point of the arms race since fists and stones: to kill your enemy without being killed. Preferably, you deny your enemy the CHANCE to kill you. Fair fights lose too many soldiers, so the goal is to make the fight as "unfair" as possible.

    It's this which causes the outrage, as anti-war types and those on the receiving end of better weapons whine about inhumanity. What are they proposing instead? War is somehow more moral if the enemy has more chance to kill your citizens?

    War is hell, there's no civilizing it. When you fight one, load the dice your way as much as possible and get it done with minimal risk to your citizens. Nothing else makes sense.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Kill your enemy safely, 500 years on

      Though quite possible naive, perhaps the distinction is that a human has to make a moral choice about killing.

      Soldiers have committed awful atrocities in the name of war in the past. However, they were making a choice albeit under orders. There is always the inherent possibility that the soldier could refuse.

      When going into a war situation, there is always the possibility that what you find there isn't what was anticipated. What if your intel was wrong? These are not jihadists, just a load of school kids. Can a machine make that distinction and decide not to blow them all away?

      I think that is what is behind this fear.

      The comparison with the Tomahawk is a little disingenuous though. These autonomous killing machines are intended for targeted troop-type operations otherwise why wouldn't you just use a big bomb anyway?

    2. Anonymous C0ward

      Re: Kill your enemy safely, 500 years on

      You don't just want to kill. It takes more of the enemy's effort to deal with a seriously injured soldier than a dead one.

    3. Red Bren
      Mushroom

      Re: Kill your enemy safely, 500 years on

      "the goal is to make the fight as "unfair" as possible."

      But your enemy will be pursuing the same goal with whatever resource is available. You send an unmanned drone to a wedding party. "They" send some indoctrinated mule with an exploding rucksack on your public transport.

      "War is somehow more moral if the enemy has more chance to kill your citizens?"

      War is more moral if the enemy has a chance to kill your military, otherwise it isn't war, it's genocide. If you're not putting your forces in harms way, what incentive is there to seek a diplomatic solution before the first shot is even fired? What is to stop you riding roughshod over anyone who disagrees with you, or gets between you and a chance to make a quick buck? And without a military target, who do you think your enemy is going to attack? One-sided warfare is what causes the outrage, because it encourages powerful nations to behave like bullies and leaves weaker enemies no option but to go for soft targets, i.e they have more chance to kill your citizens.

      "War is hell, there's no civilizing it. When you fight one, load the dice your way as much as possible and get it done with minimal risk to your citizens. Nothing else makes sense."

      Not resorting to war might make sense. Not propping up corrupt dictatorships then wondering why their oppressed peoples hate us might make sense. Not arming "rebel" groups to fight proxy wars against regimes we don't like then getting a nasty surprise when they turn their weapons on us might make sense. Not going to war on the pretext of imminent destruction in order to secure lucrative oil drilling contracts might make sense.

  9. Magister
    Mushroom

    Hmmm

    Am I the only one that read this and immediately thought of the film "Dark Star"?

    (Dan O'Bannon trying to talk to a bomb and convince it that it shouldn't explode by discussing existentialism; so it then decides that it is God and ... Let there be light!)

    1. itzman

      Re: Hmmm

      There is another series of SciFi stories about the residue of automatic weapons left wandering the galaxy long after the conflict they had been built for had ended.

      I cannot for the life of me remember where they are, what they are called or who wrote them. I think they appeared as short stories.

      1. Tikimon Silver badge
        Happy

        Re: Hmmm - Berserkers!

        I believe you're thinking of Fred Saberhagen's "Berserkers". Centuries-old, planetoid-sized autonomous war machines that repair and build more of themselves. Problem is, they are programmed with one simple edict; "Destroy all life". Good series of stories...

      2. itzman
        Happy

        Re: Hmmm

        ..Fred Saberhagen. Beserker series. Intelligent weapons of mass destruction roaming te galaxy settling old scores that lost relevance millions of years before. A drone got nuthin on them muthas

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Applying the USAs gun ownership arguement to this

    If we ban robo assassins, that means only the bad people will have robot assassins. We all need robot assassins or else we're doomed DOOMED!

    But seriously that is actually a concern of mine. Not so much a case of military use, but look at terrorist cells etc, get hold of an automated mine laying automaton, plaster a desnely populated area with mines and boom, no real way to trace teh guy who started the mine laying and lots of people dead.

    Just because the UN ban something, doesn't mean the bad guys won't get their hands on it. If anything rather than saying, "you can't have this" they shoudl be saying. "If they get this we need a countermeasure. Everyone sane, think of a counter measure."

    1. Gavin King

      Re: Applying the USAs gun ownership arguement to this

      My only thought to this line of reasoning is a question:

      "Who are the bad guys?"

      1. Vic

        Re: Applying the USAs gun ownership arguement to this

        > "Who are the bad guys?"

        That, lot obviously. 'Cos it couldn't be us...

        Durr.

        Vic.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Coincidence

    Lockhhed uploaded a video of their mature LRASM missile https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LvHlW1h_0XQ

    Isn't an autonomous enahanced survivability missile avoiding ground based pop up threats a really safe and considered approach to warfare,

    I agree with the authors point but there should be a split between these mature robotic autonomous jet/missiles looking up outlines of warships and coming in just above the waves to avoid automated defenses / and a drone working autonomously to launch a missle onto a target without a human in the loop.

  12. Martin Gregorie Silver badge

    I don't much like drones....

    .... and, having been in Afghanistan 2-3 times in the '70s, I'm damn sure the Afghans despise them and their operators, but for different reasons. Afghan society's guiding principle is personal honour, and killing people at no personal risk by pressing a button in some office in another country will almost certainly be assessed as bringing serious dishonour on the operator pressing it, their family and nation.

    That said, land mines have caused death and injury to many more non-combatants than drones ever have. So, why is the UN wittering on about drones instead of getting on with the more important job of banning land mines?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I don't much like drones....

      Yes, mines are a much worse. They are a massive problem in numerous areas as they don't know when the war is over and keep killing and maiming for decades afterwards.

    2. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Unhappy

      Re: I don't much like drones....

      "That said, land mines have caused death and injury to many more non-combatants than drones ever have. So, why is the UN wittering on about drones instead of getting on with the more important job of banning land mines?"

      Because fewer companies in fewer countries make them?

      Whereas landmines (cheap ones with mechanical triggers and no shutdown timers) are made in nearly every country.

      It makes for a more level sales mine playing field.

      1. SkippyBing Silver badge

        Re: I don't much like drones....

        Actually I don't think that many countries make landmines these days, mostly China and the US I think. Of course the difference is to make an autonomous drone you're looking at a decades long research and development programme, whereas for a landmine you can do it with a jam jar and a hand grenade.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I don't much like drones....

      They did. Shame some countries refused to sign, but then who's going to force the US or China to give up their toys?

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ottawa_Treaty

      1. Martin Gregorie Silver badge

        Re: I don't much like drones....

        @AC, who said "[The UN] did. Shame some countries refused to sign, but then who's going to force the US or China to give up their toys?".

        Even the Americans and Chinese can be shamed into signing up to the landmine ban if they are rebuked sufficiently often about not doing so.

      2. F111F
        Flame

        Re: I don't much like drones....

        YOU defend the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea without land mines...go ahead, make my day.

  13. nuked
    FAIL

    Good, balanced reporting...

    "So is the idea that there ought to be a ban on some kind of new and terrible "killer robots", in fact. Various poorly informed do-gooders, lawyers (and occasionally, fruitcakes) have been trying to stoke up the idea for years - see "Related Stories" below."

  14. Shasta McNasty
    Terminator

    Not sure I understand the issue

    How is a "killer robot" aircraft fundamentally different from an aircraft with a human pilot? Both find targets, have deadly weapons and blow stuff up.

    A pilot doesn't find their own targets, they're told what to target by more senior military personnel, which will be the same for the "killer robots".

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Not sure I understand the issue

      You're being killed by a software program that is making decisions, instead of a person.

      It's the most soul-less thing you could devise.

      1. Alexandicity

        Re: Not sure I understand the issue

        I don't think there's much soul in a attack pilot pressing a button in his cockpit and woosh goes a missile that a minute later will hit a hut somewhere. Some pilots might get up close to their targets to be able to see that what they're shooting at is actually a wedding, but I imagine most aerial bombings these days are from such a distance on to such a small target that the human element doesn't much help. The fighter - and its pilot - are identical to a auto-targeting drone in almost all cases.

        In fact, you could argue that, with suitable advances in software, that a robot will be far more discriminating than a pilot about its targets. Before it looses its ordinance, it could analyse the target on arrival more thoroughly than any pilot could in a reasonable time (count number of people, determine behaviours, look-up registration plates on trucks etc). Still wouldn't be perfect, but would probably be better than having a human in the loop who is under pressure to complete his mission (and avoid getting shot down!)..

        Then again, I'm not a pilot and I don't know how much involvement they have in target selection and verification once in the air... anyone know?

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Not sure I understand the issue

        Once killed, you're not going to care either way, so the distinction is rather academic.

        I'd be more worried about the QA standards...

  15. Don Jefe
    Terminator

    Threat to International Stability

    An armed, discretionary, autonomous flying robot is a threat to a lot more than international stability. It is a threat to everything. Seen the movies, etc... There's a Star Trek episode where they find a combat drone that had crash landed then they reactivate it and it tries to kill them for interfering with its mission.

    Drones go on joyrides more often than people think and most of them aren't armed or capable of being armed. I really don't like the idea of an armed drone jetting off into the sunset with an active armament and a communications or code failure that prevents it from being stopped. Too much room for error/terror.

    1. Naughtyhorse

      Re: Threat to International Stability

      Drones go on joyrides more often than people think...

      cos the uplink is important - isn't that kinda the point - no need of an uplink.

      in my naivete i imagine there would be some protocol by which it would make itself safe in the event of a BSOD in the controller.

      1. Don Jefe
        Meh

        Re: Threat to International Stability

        Most drones aren't actively piloted until they are near their target or loitering area and on takeoff/landing. The drone flight path is predefined: no uplink is required or used unless mid flight changes are made to the mission plan.

        Their safe mode is to land if returning home isn't possible, that's how the Iranians got their drone from the U.S. I would think it preferable to not deliver armed drones next time...

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Here's the thing...

    You can talk about "surgical strikes", "terrorist cells", "targets" and "the Libyan intervention" (surely the oiliest metaphor ever for a brutal bank robbery carried out by mercenaries) all you like but:

    Killing people is wrong. Fuck your military bullshit, fuck your jargon, fuck glorious tradition and "The British Grenadier". Killing people is wrong. This is an absolute truth. No weaseling, no "what if you/your loved ones were threatened", no "what about all the families fed and clothed with the benefits". That's the Harry Lime argument, and it fails, because killing people for money goes beyond wrong. That's evil.

    OK, back to your willy-wiggling.

    AC because this is an unpopular view, and I have no interest in the kind of ad hominem arguments that the bloodthirsty armchair warriors are likely to employ. After all, there is no room for refutation here. Killing people is wrong.

    1. NomNomNom

      Re: Here's the thing...

      yes but what if your loved ones were threatened?

    2. Maharg
      Unhappy

      Re: Here's the thing...

      Yes its wrong.

      But it happens, it always happens and it always will.

      Personally I subscribe to the idea that killing people is wrong, but that doesn’t stop other people doing it, and I don’t want to be killed, therefore to stop them killing me, I want the biggest stick possible, because if I have a big stick, and everyone around me has a big stick, then I will not be killed.

      Whats better than having a big stick? People who are trained to use sticks better than everyone else, and their sticks are even bigger and have laser sights and can defend us from the people that want to kill us…

      Then people don’t get killed.

      You just have to make sure the people with the big sticks are responsible enough to use them only as a last resort.

      “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to stand by and do nothing”

    3. zyzyx159

      Re: Here's the thing...

      While I can agree with you that killing people is wrong I also hold to the philosophy that watching someone be killed while it is in my power to prevent this is equally wrong. In the event of killing one person to save another I would rather have the blood of the guilty on my hands that the blood of the innocent. These circumstances don’t make it right, the lesser of two evils is still evil, it makes it necessary.

    4. Don Jefe
      Windows

      Re: Here's the thing...@AC - Original Poster

      You are correct, killing people is wrong. Someday I like to think that killing one another for any reason will be as abhorrent as any other social/moral taboo. There is room for refutation though, there always is. By and large it is people who refuse to acknowledge that room for refutation or accept that another viewpoint exists who are responsible for most of the killing...

    5. SundogUK

      Re: Here's the thing...

      Yes, because killing all those Nazis was obviously the wrong thing to do. We should have let them take over the world and done whatever they willed with it.

  17. dssf

    Distinctions

    Distinctions, Disminctions

    I listened to a story about it on Public Radio last night.

    Some distinctions, I munge together from listening to other shows not directly related:

    -- Pilots can suffer PTSD, disorientation, and have to reconcile being in multiple time zones, attacking and destroying targets and sometimes people (if not on simple recon flights), then leave their hangars/chairs in some Nevada control center, then go to dinner with family or friends

    -- Humans in the decision loop can use morals, ethics, and surrender body language to decide to cease fire or take a chance on the surrender being a ruse, but a robot with strict survival and victor protocols/coding may be more ruthless, less forgiving, more thorough, and cause much more carnage if the program behaves in some rampage mode

    -- Generals/troops (humans, if caught) can be summoned to war crimes trials/tribunals and be fined, imprisoned, or executed whereas the robots open of a whole new ethics/morality bag of worms to hash out

    Also, my take on the audio report was that the concern is not robotic AUVs and missiles, but field-deployed autonomous, patrolling, searching/destroying/"engagement" machines. Not quite terminator, but more lethal than and not as benign-looking as Captain Pike/R2D2/Dalek machines.

    Once gyros, accelerometers, balancers, limb controls, and running algorithms are more greatly enhanced, there will be no need for the apparatuses to help troops and marines to carry 2x or 4x the typical combat loads into the the field. These machines will be desert-capable, water-resistant, never thirsty or tired, and probably not even tracked, but maybe bipedal or some clunky-but-still-efficient multi-legged gun mounts, intel cams, and map-making netted bots.

    Or, they may simply be the little bug imitators launched to spew toxic gas, release fleschette needles, or otherwise "sting" specific targets or columps of troops and perimeter guards just to grind down the morale and fighting spirit. So, my take on it is these robots might be fitted with LTL (less than lethal) but highly incapacitating and demoralizing tools. This way, even if the machines go rogue, the only likely deaths might result from the exposed who have or are:

    -- adverse allergic reaction to shots, or falls from great heights

    -- those who pass out near cliffs, balconies, along heavily trafficked roadways, or

    -- those trying to swim in deep or forde rough water while under heavy combat loads they cannot shed, and who do not have floatation gear activated.

    So, unless the bots learn to make custom ammo and deceive their (human) makers, or gain the ability to destroy aircraft, buildings, infrastructure, and ground vehicles, these robots do not all necessarily have to be totally feared as unstoppable killing machines.

    1. Don Jefe
      Terminator

      Re: Distinctions

      You think Daleks look benign? Man I would hate to have your nightmares. Daleks creeped me out since I was very small. I think they are terrifying in their simplicity. No uncanny valley, no confusion of purpose.

      Any machines that destroy Humans will undoubtedly be as inhuman in appearance as is achievable and likely black in color (cheapest color for corrosion protection :) there is no advantage to a flash death robot. Just like firearms appear as they do because it is the simplest form they can obtain & meet their requirements so too will the truly dangerous robots be simple.

  18. disgruntled yank Silver badge

    Do tell

    In _The Great War and Modern Memory_, Paul Fussell quoted Liddell-Hart on poison gas: "Mankind tolerates abuses, but abhors innovations."

  19. Jeff 11

    I'm a bit surprised at the rather flawed analogy between an autonomous drone and a guided weapon - usually your analyses are more on the ball Lewis!

    A Tomahawk missile is of course capable of failing to achieve its objective and causing collateral damage, but its simplicity (it's basically an autopilot without the landing code) means that's less likely to happen than something that can make decisions autonomously - and even if it does happen, it can only blow up the wrong thing once.

    A reusable machine that can decide how to fulfill its objective can do so in many more ways, and, potentially, multiple times. Fortunately that sort of real intelligence is far beyond our means to effectively implement at the moment.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Pint

    Australia?

    would boomerangs be classed as reusable drones?

    I can see it now, "The boomerang wars", Australia conquers the planet in a fosters fueled attack that caught everyone by surprise...

    I for one would welcome our Australian overlords, however the fosters is another matter

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/may/28/australia-best-place-live-work

    1. Anonymous C0ward

      Re: Australia?

      In Australia just about everything can kill you.

  21. lyngvi

    [quote]Picture this dystopian scenario. A ... jet aeroplane takes off on a bombing mission. ... [O]nce the jet is in the air there's no way for human commanders to communicate with it.

    The jet flies along at high speed for hours, hugging the ground and weaving through valleys to avoid being picked up on radar. It navigates using various different means. ...

    The jet completes its journey and decides without any [external] human input at all whether it has in fact found its designated target. Assuming the [pilot] decides affirmatively, a massive warhead plummets out of the sky on that spot and colossal explosive destruction is unleashed.[/quote]

    That's the plot of Dr. Strangelove. The key problem there is that the plane was launched at all. I don't really see how replacing the pilots with robots in that movie would change the storyline.

    You could also take the reductio: ICBMs cannot be retracted once fired. Nor, in fact, can bullets. Or arrows. Or a thrown stone. Clearly, a ban on stone-throwing is called for. Monkeys at the zoo will be tried for war crimes post-haste.

    Military tech is all about search and destroy. The frightening aspect of military automation is the "search" part, not the "destroy" part. Automatic targeting and decision making, such as is needed by the automatic turrets I've heard rumored to be deployed on the N/S Korean border, are far more terrifying than missile systems honing in on pre-selected targets. I question whether the UN discussion might dwell more on systems which perform automatic target selection, rather than systems merely capable of target tracking.

  22. Beridhren the Wise

    Re: Here's the thing...

    Murder is wrong, killing is perfectly acceptable when it’s the only way to ensure your own survival.

  23. asdf Silver badge

    wow

    Yes the taliban warrior is all about honor. Honor is stoning your sister for dare being raped. Honor is throwing acid in 9 yo girl's faces. That country will be a shit hole 1000 years from now just like was 1000 years ago.

  24. Nanners
    Childcatcher

    Oh, do give up the holier than thou.

    Do you think you are going to stop it? No. Evil is very real and it comes in the form of a micro processor. "Do no evil" my ass. Human kind has already reached critical mass and there are too many monkey minds hell bend on destroying all creation. Our only hope is mercy from a greater power that can save us from our power hungry selves.

  25. asdf Silver badge

    International law is a suggestion

    International law hahahahaha! What a joke. If there was such a thing as international law Cheney and Rumsfeld (Obama too actually) would be in the Hague.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: International law is a suggestion

      Did you mis-spell morgue?

  26. ecofeco Silver badge
    Mushroom

    Is it just me?

    Or is the military moving more and more toward Skynet?

    No joke. I'm seeing more and more autonomous weapons these days. This is NOT a very smart idea.

  27. zyzyx159
    Joke

    Rossum's Universal Robots - from the coining of the word robot they have been killing us all

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R.U.R.

    FYI from the very coining of the word ‘robot’ even before they were made of metal they were killing all humans on earth and we are only now just banning them from having weapons?

    Sorry to change the subject but after reading some of these comments a comic relief felt necessary.

  28. CmdrX3

    Good luck getting that one past a US veto.

  29. Matt Bryant Silver badge
    Facepalm

    Christof Heyns has form for this.

    It's not the first time Christof Heyns has criticised drones, but then his criticisms are solely of the US use of them, and are particularly vehement with his insistence that the CIA's use of them is "illegal". To understand why all you need to know is he is employed by the totally discredited UN Human Rights Council.

  30. Herby Silver badge

    War is hell. What else is new.

    The object of Armies (as stated by a general a while ago) is to:

    1) Kill people.

    2) Break things.

    All else is irrelevant, or aids in the task at hand. Sure there are several ways of doing these tasks, some "more humane" than others, but the basic tasks remain.

    Consider your own body. It is continually at war with germs and other nasties. Disarming it (read AIDS) doesn't work, so we make up helpers (antibiotics) to fight the "war". Sometimes the drugs we invent can be harmful to the bodies "civilian" population (chemotherapy) but we soldier on. In the end we hope the good guys beat out the bad guys. Life is like that. Sorry!

  31. Stevie Silver badge

    Bah!

    Well it's about f*cking time! The bloody things have been trundling around killing indiscriminately for fifty years now with hardly a word from Europe's best.

    Wait, we *are* talking about Daleks, aren't we?

  32. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The UN parasite happens to be right in this case

    This is not about fire and forget, one use weapons, which fire one warhead or a cluster of warheads, then are used up, but rather adaptive weapons which are much smarter than fixed algorithm computer assisted weapons like cruise missiles, 'smart' bombs, sensor parachute bombs, or sentry like weapons.

    This is about much more sophisticated, drones which can learn, lurk, and act without specific prior programming, just training, with dynamic adaption to threats or evasion, and like a remote human pilot would normally do with a remote drone, pick the right moment and best target to attack, possibly picking and firing several different warhead types over a period of time, then possibly returning to base. The distinctive dangers of this much more advanced and relatively cheap weapon are highlighted in the recent novel "Kill Decision" by Daniel Suarez, and in the land based models in his novels "Daemon" and "Freedom". This stuff is based on real research, it is only a matter of time before it emerges in mass produced weapons systems, unless stopped first.

    We could eventually face a similar situation to the Star Trek episode where the Enterprise visited a 'deserted' weapons merchant planet and faced increasingly nasty drone weapons, because the manufacturing learnt too, and we know what happened to the merchants; then got killed off by their own weapons! A similar allegory is in the Terminator films and the Screamer films.

    1. Matt Bryant Silver badge
      Facepalm

      Re: The UN parasite happens to be right in this case

      "....We could eventually face a similar situation to the Star Trek episode where the Enterprise visited a 'deserted' weapons merchant planet ....." Sorry to interrupt your shrieking melodramatics, but just about every major step forward in weapon tech has been greeted with forcasts of doom'n'gloom and the "inevitable" end of mankind. When the Samurai faced the introduction of the gun they were horrified - the "ignoble peasants" could suddenly kill the "honour-bound" Samurai from outside the range of their swords! For them it was a "civilisation-threatening" development, they claimed that the freedom to kill without the restraints imposed by the Samurais' code of honour meant every man would kill indiscriminately, until all the Japanese had killed each other. Well, the gun did mean an end to the Japanese feudal lords and their Samurai, but Japan didn't become some empty wasteland.

  33. Katie Saucey
    WTF?

    So the UN wants to ban cruise missiles? I think they're about 70 years late

    "...there's no human pilot in constant control as there is with those, and once the jet is in the air there's no way for human commanders to communicate with it."

    Haven't these been in use for quite some time. I believe they are called cruise missiles..

    "..flies along at high speed for hours, hugging the ground and weaving through valleys to avoid being picked up on radar. It navigates using various different means. It can make use of the signals from GPS satellites in the sky, like a common-or-garden satnav, but it is not dependent on them: it also has terrain-matching radar and inertial guidance."

    Yup, cruise missiles. Why all the fuss now?

  34. RonWheeler
    Windows

    Trick question. What is the difference...

    ..between a semi-autonomous killer robot programmed by the military and a suicide-bomber brainwashed by radicals?

    1. Martin 71 Silver badge

      Re: Trick question. What is the difference...

      In one case the people involved in creating it are good capitalists, and thus above the law. Otherwise nothing

    2. SundogUK

      Re: Trick question. What is the difference...

      The "semi-autonomous killer robot programmed by the military" is on my side...

    3. Matt Bryant Silver badge
      Facepalm

      Re: Trick question. What is the difference...

      "Trick question. What is the difference...

      ..between a semi-autonomous killer robot programmed by the military and a suicide-bomber brainwashed by radicals?" Simple - the robot is sent by a military governed by the rules of law and - in the case of the Western powers - constrained by the democratic process. The robot will be carefully targeted in line with legal rules of engagement to strike at designated targets, usually distinct military ones. Should the robot hit the wrong target and kill civilians then steps will be taken to make sure the people that sent it do not make the mistake again. Indeed, the people responsible will face a military or civil court if they have broken the law.

      The suicide bomber will usually be sent by an undemocratic body wishing to impose a dictatorial rule, without any regard to law, and usually with no concern whether the result is the death of military personnel or civilians. Indeed, they may see added value in killing unarmed civilians. If you can't see the difference then take of the apologist blinkers.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Facepalm

        Re: Trick question. What is the difference...

        > The suicide bomber will usually be sent by an undemocratic body wishing to impose a dictatorial rule, without any regard to law

        Way to miss the entire point of the question.

        The poster was asking a philosophical question about the difference between a programmed machine and a "programmed" human as a weapon of war.

        Not one part of the question was about politics or the legitimacy of the people doing it.

        1. Matt Bryant Silver badge
          Facepalm

          Re: skelband Re: Trick question. What is the difference...

          "Way to miss the entire point of the question....." Nope, I don't think so at all.

          ".....The poster was asking a philosophical question....." And, like the majority of such philosophiocal questions, it was carefully structured to ignore the realities of the situation. After all, a littel context would show the gaping holes in the argument. If you wish to disagree then please do feel free to discuss the philosophy behind the the jihadis that are being targeted by drones in places like Waziristan, Yemen and Somalia.

  35. ashgeek

    When Sci-Fi and reality converges ...

    The world is becoming a scarier place, indeed. Ideas like this that would have seemed nuts 20 years ago are now with us in reality or not far off.

    I recently read "Kill Decision" by Daniel Suarez ... autonomous killer micro-drone swarms anyone? When I finished that book I was left with a distinct feeling that some of the basic ideas in the book may not be as far fetched as one would hope ...

  36. Paul Hovnanian Silver badge
    Terminator

    Killer robots?

    Let me just say this: Klaatu barada nikto.

  37. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    ROE?

    Not a single person on here so far as mentioned Rules of Engagement - There isn't a hope that anything like this would every make it into service in full automated mode due to the need to have positive human ID on all targets before you fire.

    The ability to pick up targets of opportunity or time sensitive targets has always been the holy grail for modern day fighting. No longer do we have the threat of very obvious columns of tanks flooding over European borders; instead we have the threat of small easily hidden targets that have the potential to cause great loss of life. The only way to counter this threat is to have eyes-on all the time with a very fast decision to bang loop (ie. Hypersonics) - or to have eyes-on with loitering munions in the area all the time (ie 24hrs) and the only way you can do this is with a drone - but you will still always need a man in the loop to make the final decision.

  38. Emilio Desalvo

    Bolos act only in Defence Of Humanity and For The Honor Of The Regiment!

  39. F111F
    Boffin

    Designation vs Acquisition

    The US does not allow UAVs to designated targets. Targets are designated and authorized by a human. Drones or UAVs may have the ability to acquire their target, but they do not "choose" or make a value judgement based on some arbitrary threshold. GLCMs and others that don't find their target simply go find an open space and impact there. Even CBUs are dropped against a designated target and simply acquire a target (if the CBU can acquire).

  40. menotu

    run and hide,, the guidance system is run by Apple Maps..

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