The Case Against Killer Robots

Why the United States Should Ban Them

Stephen Bowler / Flickr

In the Terminator movies, fully autonomous robots wage war against humanity. Although cyborg assassins won’t be arriving from the future anytime soon, offensive “Terminator-style” autonomous robots that are programmed to kill could soon escape Hollywood science fiction and become reality. This actual rise of the machines raises important strategic, moral, and legal questions about whether the international community should empower robots to kill.

This debate goes well beyond drones, as they are yesterday’s news. Existing armed unmanned aerial vehicles are precursors to lethal autonomous robotics -- that is, killer robots -- that could choose targets without further human intervention once they are programmed and activated. The Pentagon is already planning for them, envisioning a gradual reduction by 2036 of the degree of human control over such unmanned weapons and systems, until humans are completely out of the loop. But just because the Department of Defense wants it doesn’t mean the United States should allow it. Instead, Washington should take the lead in drafting a new, international agreement to ban killer robots and regulate other kinds of autonomous systems. There is no better time to push for such a prohibition than next week, on May 13, when 117 countries will meet in Geneva for the first multilateral UN talks on killer robots at the United Nations. There, the United States should stand up and tell the world that people must remain in complete control when it comes to war and peace.


Wars fought by killer robots are no longer hypothetical. The technology is nearly here for all kinds of machines, from unmanned aerial vehicles to nanobots to humanoid Terminator-style robots. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, in 2012, 76 countries had some form of drones, and 16 countries possessed armed ones. In other words, existing drone technology is already proliferating, driven mostly by the commercial interests of defense contractors and governments, rather than by strategic calculations of potential risks. And innovation is picking up. Indeed, China, Israel, Russia,

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