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Lethal Autonomy and the Fate of Mankind


In 1984 the movie Terminator drew the minds of cinemagoers into a science fiction world in which robots have taken over and had begun hunting human beings. The epic battle between machine and man, striving for survival. This franchise released a new movie in 2015, however the context is somewhat different.

In 1984 drones were not hovering over undefined battlefields, assassinating targets chosen on an arbitrary basis and tearing bodies to shreds with zero accountability. The thought of pilotless miniature planes flying across the world with lethal payloads seemed a concept apt for franchises such as Terminator. Under the Obama administration since 2009, approximately 3388 people have lost their lives in Pakistan through drone strikes. These statistics are 5 times higher than the deaths under the Bush administration. Shockingly, the Bush administration is the yardstick by which we are compelled to compare. The very same administration that gave us the war on Afghanistan, war on Iraq, covert war in Yemen, Guantanamo and the horrors of Abu Ghraib. The wanton murder rained down on poor rural communities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen have been legitimised by the Obama administration under the phrase “all military-age males in a strike zone” as combatants. As per the author and investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants “could be anywhere from 15 to 70 years old”. 

This formula of death has been utilised to justify events such as the Obama administration’s ‘terror Tuesday’; meetings in which life and death of individuals are decided. When US citizen Anwar al Awlaki was assassinated without any trial but rather on the basis of a secret memo, the cataclysmic implications of the drone project became evident. This was underscored by the arbitrary assassination of Anwar al Awlaki’s 16 year old son, Abdulrahman, two weeks later. The justification provided by former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs when questioned about the murder of Adbulrahman was, “I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the wellbeing of their children.”

To date no individual in the kill chain stretching from the military personnel behind the drone strikes to the drone pilots themselves, nor the administration ordering these murders have been brought to account. Drone strikes have gradually eroded the bedrock of democracy by chipping away at the principle of accountability.

In 2015 a far more sinister threat looms in the horizon. The buzz word being ‘lethal autonomy’ or offensive artificial intelligence. A perfect example of this would be a drone, selecting its own targets, executing them, reloading and refuelling, taking off to cut down another human being. This entire process is devoid of human decision-making. The threat to global stability was articulated by an open letter penned by over 1000 global minds opposing offensive artificial intelligence. Some of the signatories to the open letter to the Future of Life Institute were Professor Stephen Hawking, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Professor Noam Chomsky of MIT, Demis Hassabis, Shane Legg and Mustafa Suleyman amongst others.

It has been argued that the coding defining targets at present would be confined to the original parameters installed into the LAWS (lethal autonomous weapons systems). However, this is only due to technological limitations as computers at present are not able to rewrite their original parameters. On the 17th August 2015 Russia Today however ran a story with the headline “Russian scientists create artificial brain that can educate itself”. A breakthrough in the world of Artificial Intelligence undermining the notion that LAWS will not be able to rewrite its own code to redefine its own targets on more arbitrary grounds.

It comes as no surprise that the United States and the United Kingdom are punting the development and utilisation of LAWS and offensive AI. The United States is the largest global arms exporter controlling 31% of the market share between 2010-2014 as per the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). It therefore stands to reason that these new weapon systems would be tested on the innocent nations of Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Mali and others. Just as Palestinians are utilised as test subjects for lethal weapon systems by Israel , US drone strikes have targeted weddings and funerals alike, littering the ground with mangled bodies for those who survive to piece together and collect.

Human intervention has created arbitrary criteria for assassination such as “all military-age males in a strike zone” and a “more responsible father”. The victims have been predominantly the poor living in remote areas with little or no recourse against their faceless, shapeless killers. If human intervention has provided mankind with this horror, one shudders to think what LAWS in the hands of merciless murderers will hold.

The world stands on the precipice of global annihilation. The authors of the open letter warn that “Autonomous weapons are ideal for tasks such as assassinations, destabilizing nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group”. Innocent people have been on the receiving end of global injustice for a period in excess of a decade. Will mankind rise up to protect their kin or offer their fate to the architects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?


Written by:

Zaakir Ahmed Mayet

Chairman of the Media Review Network (South Africa)