Are there war machines that we can consider independent? The US Department of Defense considers that an autonomous weapon is “a system that, once activated, can select targets, and aim against them without human intervention”. This restrictive definition includes the devices that allow the change to manual mode, so that it is a person who ends up firing, which is what is done now.

Given this description, it could be said that today we only have semi-autonomous weaponry. However, prototypes capable of free movement are already being made, and they are designed to select targets to which to apply their destructive power, following the criterion of artificial intelligence. For now, they can operate only in the environment and conditions previously modeled by their designers and programmers, but history teaches us that everything possible with existing technology, ends up becoming a reality. Experts say that momentum will come in a few decades … or years.

Scientists against killer machines

True lethal autonomous weapons (LAWs), will face the enemy without human orders, and will decide what to do to avoid obstacles that prevent the execution of their mission. For example, a small tank could patrol the streets of a city, and act without a pilot to decide for it. These wits do not yet exist, but have already sparked a great controversy and an international debate.

In the summer of 2015, more than a thousand scientists, technology experts and artificial intelligence specialists signed a manifesto against autonomous weapons, which they defined as “the third revolution in the history of war, after gunpowder and nuclear bomb”. Signatories, including such popular and prestigious figures as British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, entrepreneur Elon Musk, president of Tesla and SpaceX, and Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, called for a ban on this new weaponry.

Since then, thousands of scientists and ordinary citizens have joined in this petition, which makes arguments difficult to refute. For example, what would happen if some state ends up developing this technology? It would most likely lead to a global arms race with dangerous consequences: terrorists, warlords and dictators could end up having themselves with these sophisticated tools of destruction, as they become generalized. According to the manifesto, “autonomous weapons would become the kalashnikov of the future.” In addition, if the machines were to be the protagonists of the war, and the presence of troops in the front was reduced, some countries might be more inclined to aggression, because the danger would be reduced for their soldiers.

Smart Drones

Parallel to the philosophical and legal discussion, technologically advanced powers have embarked on a prototype race or already use – like South Korea and Israel – semi-autonomous terrestrial or anti-aircraft systems. The United States has successfully tested the X-47B, the first unmanned aerial vehicle capable of landing unassisted on an aircraft carrier, and refueling in flight without human intervention. When it enters service, it will not require operators to control it on the ground. The objectives of each mission will be loaded into its central computer and the machine will be responsible for completing them, whether for observation or attack.

For its part, Russia has already exhibited its T-14 main battle tank, whose turret can operate autonomously; And the United Kingdom, together with BAE Systems, develops the semi-autonomous Taranis dron, similar to the X-47B, with capacity for surveillance and intelligence tasks, but also to target targets and even attack them once authorized. China maintains its usual opacity in this field, but the experts do not doubt that it works in armament of this class.