Jonathan Weinberg writes… One of the UK’s leading scientists reckons terrorists could soon be using robots to attack their targets – so should we all be worried and run for cover?
Well, I’ve already battened down my hatches, took the tin hat out of storage and stocked up on tins of corned beef and baked beans. Annoyingly, I don’t even like corned beef, but I’m told it lasts.
Anyhow, robots are without doubt one of the biggest technological advances and one of the biggest techno-tests we face in the future. If they can be used for good, it stands to reason they can be used for evil. Anyone who’s seen Steven Spielberg flick Artificial Intelligence: AI starring Jude Law will know how terrifying a world with ultra-realistic human-like robots could be.
But far from being cute and cuddly like David in that movie, Professor Noel Sharkey, from Sheffield University’s Department of Computer Science, believes robots represent a cheap and easy way for terrorists to inflict mass casualties and says they could ultimately replace suicide bombers.
This world of Terminator-like creatures could well be some way off but the Professor does speak sense. He explained: “With the current prices of robot construction falling dramatically, and the greater availability of ready-made components for the amateur market, it would not require a lot of skill to make autonomous robot weapons. Once the new weapons are out there, they will be fairly easy to copy. How long is it going to be before terrorists get in on the act?”
It does kind of sound a bit like Transformers, but only far more threatening.
Now it’s true robots are already used in war, for the good and the bad. The drones and unmanned aircraft are capable of scouting out enemy territory and robots are also used to defuse landmines and bombs.
But Professor Sharkey has a point in how this can be turned for more devious uses. He claims you can build a flying drone with GPS for around £250. And if that’s true, maybe this is the greatest threat to mankind since the Cold War.
It’s an interesting theory, I’ve often looked at the miraculous capabilities of Honda’s peaceful ASIMO, pictured at the top of this page, and wondered what the future could bring. We all have a dreamy mindset about robots from cartoons like The Jetsons and classic kids TV like Metal Mickey (look it up on YouTube!).
They have always been touted as things that would and should make our lives easier. They could help around the house, do the ironing, cook the dinner and we already have smaller scale versions now that can vacumn and mow the lawn.
But maybe a robot army controlled by some hot-headed madman in a James Bond-stylee is not actually so far-fetched. In the Second World War every house needed a bomb shelter to protect themselves from falling missiles. Maybe the 21st century version is we all need jammers in our homes to take out the techno-bots before they take us out.
Mr Sharkey added: “Current robots are dumb machines with very limited sensing capability. What this means is that it is not possible to guarantee discrimination between combatants and innocents or a proportional use of force as required by the current Laws of War.” Thanks Prof, cheer us all up why don’t you!
When you consider the likes of tanks and war aircraft have been flogged off on eBay in the past, it makes me just a little nervous. So I’m off to build myself my own robot bodyguard out of my toaster, the TV remote and some sticky-backed plastic.
But in the meantime, what do you think? Should we be afraid, very afraid, of Dr Who-like enemies crawling out of the woodwork to do us harm or are robots a force for real good rather than evil? Post a comment below…