Drones in Ukraine could be a prelude to “killer robots”

Technological advances in drones used in Ukraine have accelerated a trend that could soon bring the first fully autonomous combat robots to the battlefield, ushering in a new era in warfare.

The longer the war lasts, the more likely it is that drones will be used to identify, select and attack targets without human help, according to military analysts, fighters and artificial intelligence researchers.

That would mean a revolution in military technology as profound as the introduction of the machine gun. Ukraine already has semi-autonomous attack drones and AI-powered counter-drone weapons. Russia also claims to possess AI weaponry, although such claims are unproven. But there are no confirmed cases of a nation engaging robots that have killed humans in complete autonomy.

Experts say it may only be a matter of time before Russia or Ukraine, or both, deploy them. The sense of inevitability extends to activists, who have tried for years to ban killer drones but now feel they must settle for trying to restrict the offensive use of these weapons.

Ukrainian Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov agrees that lethal fully autonomous drones are the “logical and inevitable next step” in weapons development. He said Ukraine has been doing “a lot of research and development in this direction.”

“I think the potential for it is great in the next six months,” Fedorov told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

Ukrainian Lt. Col. Yaroslav Honchar, co-founder of the nonprofit combat drone innovation company Aerorozvidka, said in a recent interview near the front lines that human fighters simply cannot process information and make decisions as quickly as machines.

Ukrainian military leaders currently prohibit the use of fully independent lethal weapons, although that could change, he said.

“We haven’t crossed this line yet, and I say ‘yet’ because I don’t know what will happen in the future,” said Honchar, whose group has spearheaded drone innovation in Ukraine, turning cheap commercial drones into lethal weapons.

Russia could get autonomous AI from Iran or other countries. Iran-supplied Shahed-136 long-range explosive drones have damaged Ukrainian power plants and terrorized civilians, but they aren’t particularly smart. Iran has other drones in its arsenal that it says incorporate AI.

Without much trouble, Ukraine could make its semi-autonomous drones fully independent to better survive electronic interference on the battlefield, according to manufacturers in the West.

Among those drones are the US-made Switchblade 600 and the Polish-made Warmate, which currently require a human to choose targets via a live video feed. The AI ​​finishes the job. Drones, technically known as “loitering munitions,” can hover for several minutes over a target, waiting for a clean shot.

“The technology to achieve a fully autonomous mission with the Switchblade already exists,” says Wahid Nawabi, CEO of AeroVironment, its manufacturer. That will require a change in policy—remove humans from the decision-making circuit—something that, by his calculations, is three years away.

Drones can already recognize targets, such as armored vehicles, using cataloged images. But there are disagreements about whether the technology is reliable enough to ensure that machines don’t goof off and kill non-combatants.

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The AP asked the Ukrainian and Russian defense ministries if they had used autonomous weapons for offensive purposes and if they would commit not to use them if the other side did too. Neither of them responded.

If one of the two sides went on the attack with full AI, it wouldn’t even be the first time.

An inconclusive UN report indicates that lethal autonomous systems (or “killer robots”) made their debut in Libya’s internal conflict in 2020, when Turkish-made Kargu-2 drones in fully automatic mode killed an unknown number of fighters.

A spokesman for STM, the manufacturer, said the report was based on “speculative and unverified” information and “should not be taken seriously.” He told the AP that the Kargu-2 cannot attack a target until the operator tells it to.

Honchar believes that Russia, whose attacks on Ukrainian civilians have shown little regard for international law, would have already used autonomous drones if it had them.

“I don’t think they had any qualms,” agreed Adam Bartosiewicz, vice president of WB Group, maker of the Warmate.

AI is a priority for Russia. President Vladimir Putin said in 2017 that whoever masters that technology will rule the world. In a speech on December 21, he expressed confidence in the Russian arms industry’s ability to add AI to war machines, stressing that “the most effective weapons systems are those that work quickly and practically in automatic mode. ”

Russian officials already claim that their Lancet drone can operate in complete autonomy.

Until now, attempts to establish basic international standards for military drones have been unsuccessful. Nine years of informal United Nations talks in Geneva have made little progress, and major powers including the United States and Russia oppose a moratorium. The last session, held in December, ended without a new round having been scheduled.

Toby Walsh, an Australian academic who campaigns against killer robots, hopes to reach a consensus on some limits, including a ban on systems that use facial recognition and other data to identify or attack individuals or categories of people.

“If we’re not careful, they’re going to proliferate much more easily than nuclear weapons,” said Walsh, author of “Machines Behaving Badly.” “If you can make a robot kill one person, you can make it kill 1,000.”

Several countries and all branches of the US military are developing drones capable of striking in deadly synchronized swarms, said Zachary Kallenborn, a weapons innovation analyst at George Mason University.

Will future wars turn into a fight to the last drone?

That is what Putin predicted in a 2017 televised talk with engineering students: “When the drones of one side are destroyed by the drones of the other, you will have no choice but to surrender.”

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