How killer robots became more than just scary science fiction.
- By Ty McCormickTy McCormick is Africa Editor at Foreign Policy. Based in Nairobi, Kenya, he has reported from across much of Africa and the Middle East, including Egypt, Lebanon, Somalia, South Sudan, Burundi, Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was a finalist for the 2015 Kurt Schork Memorial Award for International Journalism. In addition to FP, he has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and National Geographic. Ty received his bachelor’s degree from Stanford University, and a master’s from the University of Oxford, where he was a Clarendon Scholar. He received a second master's degree from the Queen's University Belfast as a George J. Mitchell Scholar.
The killer robot has been a science-fiction staple for decades, but rapid advances in artificial intelligence may soon usher in the era of lethal autonomous machines for real. If one counts certain ship-borne air-defense systems, that day has already arrived. But a growing chorus of critics think machines shouldn’t be licensed to kill. With the United Nations likely to take up the issue in 2014, here’s a look back at the surprisingly long history of lethal autonomy.
Leonardo da Vinci designs a “mechanical knight” capable of mimicking a range of human motions, including raising its arms, sitting up, and opening and closing its jaw. Sketches in his notebook show an elaborate system of cranks and pulleys beneath an armored exterior, though it’s unclear how the original Renaissance man planned to power his fighting automaton.
The Aegis air-defense system aboard the USS Vincennes, stationed in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War, detects an apparently hostile aircraft. The plane is in fact an Iranian commercial airliner, but the system, then in semiautomatic mode, shoots down the jetliner, killing all 290 people aboard.
A Predator hovering about 100 miles east of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, carries out the first U.S. drone strike outside a war zone, killing Abu Ali al-Harithi, the alleged mastermind of the 2000 USS Cole bombing, and five other militants, including one American. Drones become a regular tool in the U.S. war on terrorism.
*CORRECTION, Jan. 21, 2014: The print version of this article in the January/February 2014 issue incorrectly stated the year in which the U.S. Air Force used laser-guided weapons to destroy the Thanh Hoa Bridge in North Vietnam. The bridge was destroyed in 1972, not 1973.
Special thanks to P.W. Singer, author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.
Illustrations by Jameson Simpson