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A Canadian Robotics Company Is Against Killer Robots

One Canadian robotics company isn't cool with autonomous robots that can kill.
August 13, 2014, 10:40pm
Image: Clearpath Robotics

The battle against autonomous, robotic killing machines just got its first robotics company partner, as Canada-based Clearpath Robotics pledged its support to the international campaign calling for a ban on fully autonomous weaponized robots.

In a press release, Clearpath CTO and cofounder Ryan Gariepy explains why his company signed on to the Campaign To Stop Killer Robots—a multinational movement calling "for a pre-emptive and comprehensive ban on the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons, also known as lethal autonomous robots."

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"This technology has the potential to kill indiscriminately and to proliferate rapidly; early prototypes already exist," Gariepy wrote. "Despite our continued involvement with Canadian and international military research and development, Clearpath Robotics believes that the development of killer robots is unwise, unethical, and should be banned on an international scale."

The company is the first robot manufacturer to join the movement. It's worth noting, however, the company already provides autonomous robots to military clients for reconnaissance and search and rescue.

Gariepy and Clearpath do concede that autonomous killing machines are possibly "less likely to make rash, stress-driven decisions while under fire" than humans. But the pros outweigh the cons, he said.

"Would computers be able to make the kinds of subjective decisions required for checking the legitimacy of targets and ensuring the proportionate use of force in the foreseeable future?" he asked. "No."

That, of course, is not the view of those who are actually developing the things, but it's a fair point.

So what's the significance of a major unmanned robotics company coming out with an anti-killer robot stance? Well, potentially not much. Because the reality is, while Clearpath might be a contender in the realm of smaller unmanned robotics, they're not heavy hitting arms companies, which have powerful lobbyists in government, and are already developing these things.

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Until the Northrop Grummans and Lockheed Martins of the world, or a company like General Atomics—whose Predator and Reaper drones have become synonymous with the US shadow wars—sign on, there's going to be plenty of momentum behind the movement. Don't hold your breath.

And the fascination with killer bots, or perhaps the desire for robotic avatars to do the killing in war, while humans stay far from danger, is pervasive at this point.

Just look at the battlefields of Syria. Rebels are rigging up remote controlled machine gun systems to fight the Assad Regime. US Army rangers will soon be deployed to war zones with remote control robo machine guns, and fully autonomous gun turrets have been developed in South Korea.

In other words, lethal robots are the next evolution in war, and it's happening right now.

Though many of the types of robotic weapons being used today aren't fully autonomous killing capability, they're not far off. Systems that can identify targets from afar, or autonomously fly to bomb militants, are proliferating on the modern battlefield. We're really not far off from a world where those bots won't need human beings controlling them with joysticks.

While the push toward stopping autonomous robot killers is a noble cause, as we've reported, campaigners are losing the battle to transnational corporations already peddling robotic weapons the world over. Sooner or later, could Lockheed be selling autonomous robots fit to kill? They did just come out with a space-cruising UAV bomber, after all.