Perils of autonomous weapons

The cost-effectiveness of autonomous weapons in warfare could save billions of dollars

Waqar Hassan May 01, 2024
The writer is an educationist and a Commoner from 44th Common


Since antiquity, warfare has undergone significant revolutions. The discovery of gunpowder and the development of nuclear weapons are prime examples, bringing devastating changes to strategic affairs. However, the rise of AI has the potential to be even more transformative. It could reshape the future of warfare by replacing human combatants with autonomous machines on the battlefield. These autonomous weapons, capable of engaging targets without human intervention, are set to become a key component of future strategic policies and practices. This is evident, among other instances, in a viral video titled ‘Slaughterbots’, where a bird-size drone can be seen using dynamite to target and attack a person’s head.

Proponents of autonomous weapons argue they could offer benefits. They might limit human casualties in some conflicts. Moreover, the cost-effectiveness of autonomous weapons in warfare could save billions of dollars. For instance, the estimated cost of a swarm of ten thousand drones capable of destroying half a city is said to be as low as $10 million. However, the ability to precisely identify and disable terrorists remains unproven. There are drawbacks associated with the deployment of these autonomous weapons. One of them is concern about the prospects of weapons falling into the wrong hands or being susceptible to hacking. Therefore, without a system to regulate and oversee the downloading and purchasing of this technology for autonomous weapons, the future of humanity appears bleak.

According to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, “the prospect of machines with the discretion and power to take human life is morally repugnant.” These weapons have the potential to be utilised for political assassinations. One horrifying example is the incident where a ‘slaughterbot’ nearly assassinated the president of Venezuela. This technology enables terrorists to achieve their objectives independently, without human assistance. Suicide bombing could be replaced by AI weapons, granting terrorists increased access to targets while reducing the chances of being caught by law enforcement.

Moreover, the use of these weapons in warfare increases the risk of irrational decision-making. Autonomous weapons lack emotional intelligence, so they won’t differentiate between innocent individuals and terrorists in warfare. These weapons rely on phone or IoT signals to detect people, leaving those around them vulnerable to the consequences of an attack. ‘Quantum Genocide’ showcases the lethal consequences of using autonomous weapons, resulting in the deaths of business elites and high-profile individuals.

Additionally, there is always a chance of unfortunate events occurring in warfare. The absence of accountability for autonomous weapons amplifies their capacity to cause harm to humanity. Unlike the concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD) that operates in nuclear weapons regimes, which deters them from using the weapons out of fear of reciprocal responses from other states, the development of autonomous weapons promises devastation. These are lethal due to the minimal probability of detecting their origin in an attack. Should a terrorist outfit or non-state entity initiate an attack using autonomous weapons, it may go undetected and potentially lead to a nuclear conflict between rival global powers.

Strict regulations are necessary for the use of autonomous weapons. It is crucial for the UN to create a specific set of guidelines regarding the manufacturing of these weapons. Also, it is imperative to always maintain a rational approach and human decision-making in warfare. Complete monitoring is necessary to prevent anti-state actors and terrorists from obtaining autonomous weapons through technology transfer. It is imperative to implement a total prohibition on the utilisation of these weapons in proxy wars and one-sided attacks. Their sole purpose should be to defend citizens during direct conflicts.

The development and deployment of autonomous weapons have sparked a new era of warfare, necessitating global scrutiny to prevent misuse. Negligence in monitoring these weapons could lead to an undetectable conflict, potentially triggering a doomsday scenario.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 1st, 2024.

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