x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Robot wars take off

Unmanned fighter jets, cruising for days and choosing their own targets: what could possibly go wrong?

James Cameron warned us about the rise of machines nearly two decades ago. Good fun, but the threat of a Terminator tormenting its creators seemed rather farfetched then. Today, not so much.

Testing of the latest iteration of unmanned weaponry has begun over Ireland. The technology, developed by a consortium of UK aerospace firms, could one day help build a new generation of fighter jets - capable of flying independently for days while avoiding enemy fire and choosing their own targets.

The artificial intelligence behind Astraea, as the programme is called, has peaceful applications. Unmanned vehicles could, theoretically, make civilian air travel safer. Yet the closest technology that is currently in use - the unmanned predator drones that are pounding Pakistan and Yemen - have shown that "improvements" in warfare are not necessarily improvements at all.

Perhaps robot wars are inevitable, but consider the implications. For one, the technology could, in theory, turn computer geeks into front-line fighters, further desensitised to human casualties. Then there is Mr Cameron's scenario. We want further assurances that Astraea's targets will never include a fully loaded passenger airliner or schoolyard.