Russia is touting its Iron Man — a humanoid military robot — in the new global arms race that has sprung up over high-tech weaponry.
"The development of a special military robot is one of the priorities of military construction in Russia," the Russian daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda reported recently.
The purpose of Iron Man, the newspaper continued, is to "replace the person in the battle or in emergency areas where there is a risk of explosion, fire, high background radiation, or other conditions that are harmful to humans."
Experts have known that Russia has been trying in recent years to match the US and China in the development of robots, drones, and other war machines that are potentially autonomous. Today, those machines are remotely controlled. Iron Man and other recent developments illustrate how they're making progress.
"Now they have turned the dial on," said Peter Warren Singer, a military robot expert and senior fellow at New America, a think tank based in Washington, DC. "They were once behind. And now they are trying to catch up. They are clearly investing in this space."
Created by Russia's Foundation for Advanced Studies — Moscow's answer to the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA — the Iron Man is still an experiment that won't likely appear on a battlefield anytime soon.
But it's a troubling development that could help Moscow repeat the unconventional warfare pursued in Ukraine and bring the world closer to the nightmare scenario of unthinking robots killing people without the checks and balances of human control, experts said.
The technology is still not as advanced as its American counterparts, said Singer. Moscow's declarations of military prowess are also often tailored for domestic consumption to boost the government's bona fides amid a worsening economy rather than to instill fear in potential rivals. Or they're just fake. Reports in Russian state-owned media that the Syrian Army deployed Russian robots have been debunked, for example.
But those distinctions might not matter given how even primitive drones are force multipliers, or tools that increase military prowess significantly.
"Are they as good as US ones? No. Can they use them as effectively as the US military has used drones? No," said Singer. "Does it give them capabilities they didn't have a couple years ago? Yes."
Peter Asaro, a spokesman for the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and an artificial intelligence expert at The New School, similarly said Russian drones wouldn't be an immediate game changer in the rising tensions between Russia and the West.
"It's already pretty well acknowledged that if Russia wants to invade the Baltics, they can do it in 24 hours and NATO can't do much about it," Asaro said. "Them having some super sophisticated robot isn't going to change that."
But Asaro and Singer noted that Russia lately has been pursuing unconventional warfare that doesn't involve hordes of troops swarming across borders. Instead, as in Ukraine, Russia appears to have given tanks and other weapons to separatists in the eastern half of the former Soviet Union and, less overtly, sent soldiers who claimed to be mercenaries or Russian patriots, the so-called "little green men" who wore masks, unmarked uniforms, and carried Russian weapons in the conflict.
Some of the Russian soldiers on the down-low posted selfies of themselves on social media, contradicting Russian President Vladimir Putin's claims that Russia was not directly involved in the Ukrainian civil war. Robots won't post Instagram photos. And they bypass questions that arise from putting men and women in the field.
"You are using military capabilities in quasi-deniable ways," Singer said. "You are using a drone and saying 'That's not me.'"
The absence of a human element could also become a major factor in future tragedies if Russia, a major weapons supplier, sold robots to allies like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, eliminating what sometimes is the only check on strongmen massacring their citizenry to prevent a loss of power during popular uprisings.
"They are going to go to tyrannical dictators who often have trouble convincing their militaries to attack their own people, which we saw in Egypt," Asaro said. "The military refused to attack people in Tahrir Square."
The United Nations is now holding meetings on developing new international rules to govern lethal autonomous weapons. British officials and other participants at an April meeting in Geneva asserted that technically, truly autonomous weapons don't exist. Arial drones and other machines are currently remote-controlled, they said.
But while government officials at the events stress that they want humans to be in control of weapons, how humans exert control over technology is up for debate, said Asaro, who is among the experts participating in the meetings.
"Nothing is autonomous because it always has software, and humans created it, so humans are always in control," he said, describing one line of thought that has emerged among officials from the UN meetings.
Asaro didn't share that perspective. "This is an attempt to blur the line," he said.
Events on the ground might outpace the diplomats, said Singer. He didn't foresee Russia or other countries curbing their research on killer robots. Between private companies testing robotic workers, scientists pursuing their inquiries, and politicians seeking loyal iron men who don't bleed, the time is coming when truly autonomous weapons will be on the march, he said.
"You could stop the work on them if you first stopped war, science, and capitalism," he said. "There are over 80 different countries that have military robots. They aren't doing this because they think it's cool. They are doing it because they think it gives them some kind of advantage in either a current conflict or a future conflict."