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Landmine charity: Ban the killer robots before it's too late!

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Comment A London-based anti landmine and cluster bomb charity has now widened its remit and is calling for a moratorium on the use of killer robots.

"Our concern is that humans, not sensors, should make targeting decisions," said Richard Moyes of Landmine Action, quoted by New Scientist. "We don't want to move towards robots that make decisions about combatants and noncombatants."

It seems that Moyes and Landmine Action came up with the idea of a killer-robot ban following recent high-profile commments made by famed robopocalypse media-Cassandra Professor Noel Sharkey.

Prof Sharkey, perhaps best known for his role as a judge in TV's Robot Wars, is nonetheless firmly against any kind of actual robot wars. He has repeatedly warned of the coming danger to humanity posed by unfettered, soulless machine warriors in "a robot arms race that will be difficult to stop ... I can imagine a little girl being zapped because she points her ice cream at a robot to share".

On other occasions Sharkey has seemed to offer a different perspective on military death-droids, saying "it would be great if all the military were robots and they could fight each other". Overall, however, he is seen as the man to go to if you need a automatamageddon quote or soundbite.

Meanwhile, Moyes' group has decided to join Sharkey and campaign against any kind of military machines which would make their own targeting decisions. Moyes draws a parallel with current tank-buster munitions, deployed above a target area by artillery shell or airdrop. Lately, this sort of weapon will often detonate itself harmlessly in midair if it can't find anything it thinks is a tank; but Landmine Action believes this is bad, as the decision is not made by a human. Their plan would be a ban on that whole class of weapons, and a ban - as they see it, a pre-emptive ban - on killer robots.

Sharkey, Moyes et al are a bit behind the fair on this one. Killer robots within their definition - automatic systems which make combatant/noncombatant targeting decisions for themselves - have been around for some time.

Anti-shipping missiles have existed for decades which can be sent off over the horizon and look around for a target based on various criteria. Robot gun and missile anti-air installations are often designed for only basic human input - eg, turning a key to activate them - from which point they will sweep the skies of anything which looks dangerous to them.

Landmines both manufactured and improvised, far from being uniformly indiscriminate, will often be set up to attack specifically combatant targets. This is most commonly achieved by the charge being set to go off only if the road is subjected to the enormous weight of armoured vehicles, rather than pedestrians or mere civilian wheels.

Indeed, this debate is at least a century old. Sea mines have been required since the Hague Convention of 1907 to autonomously discriminate between legitimate and non-legitimate targets. Under the convention it is considered OK to use moored contact sea mines in publicised, warned minefields - provided they disarm themselves if their mooring cables come loose*. In effect, a "killer robot" mine decides whether or not a ship bumping into it is a legitimate target (that is, one acceptably near to the location of its own mooring sinker) - without human involvement. More modern magnetic/acoustic/pressure mines are often set up specifically to look for the signatures of specific types or sizes of vessel - generally seeking to pick out certain classes of enemy warship.

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