Lethal autonomy and the fate of mankind

Zaakir Ahmed Mayet

In 1984, the movie “Terminator” drew the minds of cinemagoers into a science fiction world in which robots have taken over and started to hunt human beings. It was the epic battle between man and machine, each striving for survival. The franchise released a new movie in 2015, although the context is somewhat different.

In 1984, military drones (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs, to give them their proper name) were not hovering over undefined battlefields, assassinating targets chosen on an arbitrary basis and tearing bodies to shreds with zero accountability. The very idea of pilotless miniature aircraft flying across the world with lethal payloads seemed a concept apt for franchises such as the Terminator series. Under the Obama administration since 2009, though, almost 3,500 people have lost their lives in Pakistan alone through drone strikes. That’s 5 times more than those killed under the Bush administration. Shockingly, the latter is the yardstick with which we are compelled to compare the current stats; the very same administration that gave us the war in Afghanistan, war in Iraq, covert war in Yemen, Guantanamo Bay and the horrors of Abu Ghraib. The wanton murder rained down on poor rural communities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen have been legitimised by the Obama administration, which regards “all military-age males in a strike zone” as combatants, and thus potential targets. According to investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, author of “Dirty Wars”, such targets “could be anywhere from 15 to 70 years old.”

This formula has been utilised to justify things like the Obama administration’s “terror Tuesday” meetings in which it is decided which targets will live and who is to be killed. When US citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki was assassinated without any due legal process, the implications of drone use became evident. This was underscored by the arbitrary murder of Al-Awlaki’s 16 year old son, Abdulrahman, two weeks later. When questioned about this, former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs replied, “I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the wellbeing of their children.”

To date no individual in the kill chain stretching from the military personnel operating the drone strikes to the drone pilots themselves, nor the administration ordering these murders, has been brought to account. The use of military drones has eroded the bedrock of democracy by chipping away at the principle of accountability and due process.

A far more sinister threat now looms in the horizon, however: “lethal autonomy”, or offensive artificial intelligence. For example, a drone would select its own targets, execute them, reload and refuel and then hit another target; the entire process would be devoid of human decision-making. The threat that this poses to global stability was articulated by an open letter to the Future of Life Institute penned by over 1,000 individuals opposed to offensive artificial intelligence, including Professor Stephen Hawking, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Professor Noam Chomsky of MIT, Demis Hassabis, Shane Legg and Mustafa Suleyman.

It has been argued that the coding used to define targets at present would be confined to the original parameters installed into the LAWS (lethal autonomous weapons systems). However, this is only due to technological limitations as computers at present are not able to rewrite their original parameters. On the 17 August, however, Russia Today ran a story with the headline, “Russian scientists create artificial brain that can educate itself”. It was a breakthrough in the world of artificial intelligence undermining the notion that LAWS will not be able to rewrite its own code to redefine its own targets on more arbitrary grounds.

It comes as no surprise that the United States and Britain are promoting the development and utilisation of LAWS and offensive artificial intelligence. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the US is the largest global arms exporter, controlling 31 per cent of the market share between 2010 and 2014. It is thus to be expected that such new weapon systems would be tested on the innocent people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Mali and other places where US forces are involved in overt and covert missions, often against civilians (including those attending wedding parties and funerals); similarly, the Palestinians are the “laboratory” subjects for lethal weapon systems produced by Israel.

Human intervention has created arbitrary criteria for assassination by drone, such as “all military-age males in a strike zone” and a “more responsible father”. The victims have predominantly been poor and living in remote areas with little or no recourse against their faceless, shapeless killers. If supposedly humane, democratic states have provided mankind with this horror, one shudders to think what LAWS will look like in the hands of those without any scruples or sense of morality whatsoever.

The world stands on the edge of annihilation. “Autonomous weapons are ideal for tasks such as assassinations, destabilising nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group,” warn the signatories of that open letter. Innocent victims have been on the receiving end of drone-created global injustice for more than ten years now. Will ordinary people rise up to protect themselves and others from the fate planned for them by the architects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? It’s a serious question.

The writer is the Chairman of the Media Review Network (South Africa)

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