Once again, there’s neither science-fiction nor fantasy in this post. I make up for that, though, with a heaping helping of absolutely absurd reality.
Image via randychiu / Flickr. Used under the Creative Commons 2.0 Generic license
A Reason to Love Killer Robots
I’m talking about real killer robots, people. Not the Hollywood, Terminator-style things that exist only as props and digital effects, but the AI-controlled drones being developed by militaries around the world. These are heavily-armed robots that make life-and-death decisions without input from a human operator.
I suspect most of you are horrified at the thought of this and, to tell the truth, so am I. And so is Human Rights Watch, which is leading a campaign to ban killer robots. But as much as my gut churns at the prospect of governments setting their killing machines loose amongst human populations to winnow the loyal, obedient wheat from the troublesome, undesirable chaff, there is an up-side to this. Really, I promise!
To understand where I’m coming from, we need a brief history of green bullets.
For a couple of centuries, the vast majority of the ammunition used in hand-held firearms was made of lead. Lead was plentiful, cheap, easily moulded into a variety of sizes and shapes and, compared to other metals, dense. A high density means a small amount of lead is heavy or, more precisely, it has a high mass. And when you are shooting a small projectile at another person, mass counts. The more massive a projectile is, the more damage it does and that means lead provides what weapons manufacturers call “stopping power”.
Of course, lead is also toxic. There are good reasons it is banned from household paints, children’s toys and plumbing. You might reply that, when you’re shooting at someone, you usually aren’t bothered about poisoning them, so what’s the problem with lead bullets? Well, consider the firing range at your local military base. The US military goes through hundreds of thousands of rounds each year in training exercises alone. That’s a lot of bullets, most of which end up scattered across fields and plains or imbedded in the ground. Now add to that all of the shotgun pellets and rifle bullets fired by approximately 16 million hunters in the US. That is a lot of lead, left behind to poison wildlife and even leach into the ground-water that we drink.
Fortunately, wise heads recognized this problem some time ago and, in the early 1990s, steel and copper replaced lead in the ammunition used by most hunters, while the military switched to alloys of copper and tungsten, at least for training. The US military has gone so far as to research making bullets out of biodegradables, like soy and bamboo fibre, while the Army Corps of Engineers has even toyed with the idea of packing specially bioengineered seeds within “green bullets”, effectively re-seeding a combat zone even as the fighting rages.
Fifty years after the Summer of Love, it seems the US Army has learned to embrace “flower power”.
So, what has this got to do with killer robots? Well, it seems to me this is a perfect opportunity to take the concept of “green bullets” one step further. Imagine an AI-controlled drone armed with a variety of missiles and guns. Now imagine this drone has identified a number of “kill” targets, a.k.a. bad guys. Unfortunately, before the drone can engage, the bad guys make it to the cover of a cave. Amongst its armoury, the drone has a bunker-busting missile which would make short work of both the cave and the bad guys. However, the AI also knows that the cave is the perfect habitat for an endangered species of bat that has been sighted in this region. So the AI decides against using the bunker buster and, instead, waits until the bad guys come out. Zip, zap, BOOM, the bad guys are dead and the endangered bats are alive; everybody (on one side of the political argument, at least) wins.
There is a lot of evil in this world and, let me be clear, killer robots are part of that. But I’ll take my silver linings, and my endangered bats, where I can find them.