Russian arms manufacturer Kalashnikov has announced it will launch a range of autonomous combat drones which will use artificial intelligence to identify targets and make decisions on their own. The move is likely to fuel ongoing concerns about the ethics of autonomous weapons.
The company released images of one of the combat robots, showing it will have some of Kalashnikov’s PK series of machine guns mounted on top. It is unclear when the machines will enter production or whether any customers are already interested in deploying them.
“In the nearest future we plan to unveil a whole line of neural network based products. A fully automated combat module based on that technology is to be unveiled during the ARMY-2017 forum,” communications director of Kalashnikov Sofiya Ivanova told the state-run Tass news agency.
Neural networks are computer systems modeled on the human brain and are designed to learn from past inputs, meaning they get smarter the more information they consume. They have been deployed in military applications for well over a decade, but their integration has so far been focused on areas like target recognition, infrastructure mapping, search-and-rescue missions, and aid delivery.
According to Ivanova, the neural network technology being deployed will enable the machines to identify targets and make decisions on their own — raising the possibility that unlike current drones, which feature some autonomous functions but still require human operation, these machines could operate entirely independently.
Back in 2015, a group of more than 1,000 scientists, researchers, and business leaders — including Professor Stephen Hawking and SpaceX founder Elon Musk — signed an open letter warning of the perils of artificially intelligent weapons. “If any major military power pushes ahead with AI weapon development, a global arms race is virtually inevitable, and the endpoint of this technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow,” the letter stated.
The founder of the company, Mikhail Kalashnikov, was named a “Hero of Russia” in 2009 — the the nation’s highest honorary title — by then-president Dmitry Medvedev, who lauded him for creating “the brand every Russian is proud of.” President Putin paid a visit to the Kalashnikov headquarters in 2016.
Sanctions imposed by the U.S. government in 2014 in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea prevented U.S. customers from buying arms from the company. This threatened to seriously damage the company’s ambitions, which included establishing a manufacturing plant in the U.S. However the company has since switched focus to militaries in regions like Asia and Africa, which has helped turn the company’s fortunes around.