Sheffield expert claims risk from warrior robots

TERMINATOR-style robot warriors could soon be stalking the earth as a result of a new automated arms race, according to a Sheffield University boffin.

Professor Noel Sharkey, well known for his appearances on hit TV shows Robot Wars, believes the new generation of weapons being developed around the world pose a real threat to humanity.

The robotics expert told the Royal United Services Institute he believed it would not be long before robots became a terrorist weapon to replace the suicide bomber.

Many nations are now involved in developing the technology for robot weapons, with the US Department of Defence being the most significant player.

According to expert journals the US proposes to spend an estimated $4 billion by 2010 on unmanned systems technology. The total spending is expected to rise above $24 billion.

Prof Sharkey said: "The trouble is we can't put the genie back in the bottle. 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?

"With the prices of robot construction falling dramatically and the availability of ready-made components for the amateur market, it wouldn't require a lot of skill to make autonomous robot weapons."

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More than 4,000 robots are currently deployed on the ground in Iraq, and by October 2006 unmanned aircraft had flown 400,000 flight hours.

Currently there is always a human in the loop to decide on the use of lethal force. However, this is set to change with the US giving priority to autonomous weapons - robots that will decide on where, when and who to kill.

Prof Sharkey is reluctant to explain how home-made robots could be built but said a small GPS guided drone with autopilot could be made for around 250.

The robotics expert is also concerned with a number of ethical issues that arise from the use of autonomous weapons.

He added: "Current robots are dumb machines with limited sensing capability. What this means is it is not possible to guarantee discrimination between combatants and innocents or a proportional use of force as required by laws of war.

"It seems clear there is an urgent need for the international community to assess the risks of these new weapons."

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