Weapons and warfare are becoming increasingly sophisticated with the latest battlefield technology is starting to look more like a computer game with wirelessly connected soldiers communicating via sound and vision to drones carrying satellite-linked Wi-Fi hotspots and given orders by commanders that could be on the other side of the world but the weapons of the future won’t need soldiers or commanders to operate because they will be able to make the decision of what or whom to target themselves using artificial intelligence. The Pentagon is spending $ billions on developing a new generation of lethal autonomous weapons or LAWS like robotic fighter jets, missiles that decide what to attack ships but hunt enemy submarines. For now remote weapons like UAVs or unmanned aerial vehicles are directed by humans from the safety of cubicles often hundreds or thousands of miles away from a conflict zone and as such any decision to use lethal force is always made by a person. But before we start thinking Skynet is going to take over and we’ll have terminators roaming around we are still a long way from the Hollywood version of A.I. Although we have seen the latest generation of robots like the Boston Dynamics Atlas and it’s uncanny ability to walk and move like a human we won’t be seeing an army of robotic soldiers anytime soon. Whilst we think of A.I. being used with the latest hardware. the United States Air Force is working on using older aircraft refitted with autonomous controls. The project which is called “Loyal Wingman” sees retired f-16 reused and fitted with enough autonomy so that they could fly alongside the latest f-35’s and take cues from a human pilot in another aircraft just as if a real wingman were there and probably before driverless cars will make it onto the public roads. Autonomous missiles are an area which are already in use with systems like the British fire forget Brimstone missiles. Once it has been primed with target information it can work on its own to select the best target and cooperate for up to 24 other missiles to coordinate a staggered attack against swarms of enemy vehicles or boats and it can’t find a target it will self-destruct. Drones are another big area for military A.I. The Israel Aerospace Industries HAROP is a small anti-radiation drone which is also called the “suicide drone” it can stay airborne above a battle area for upto six hours looking for specific radio transmission like a radar source or enemy air defense system but in theory could look for things like a specific signal from a mobile phone. The HAROP will been home in on the signal and deliberately crash into and destroy its target of its onboard warhead. Meanwhile DARPA, the military research arm of the Pentagon has also unveiled the “Sea Hunter” an autonomous surface vessel that is designed to stay at sea for months and track even quietly submarines anywhere in the world because it’s designed not to have any human crew during its operation. It must navigate busy shipping lanes and interact with an intelligent human adversary all by itself then communicate the data back to its control center or take the appropriate action if it were to be armed. Though these systems can work in an autonomous mode the new generation of A.I. weapons will take this to the next stage instead of being shown a target or partially remote-controlled these new weapons will go and look for targets and decide whether or not to destroy them without any human intervention recently DARPA showed a system using a drone that could be bought from amazon when loaded with new A.I. software it becomes a robot that can then hunt and identify armed men with AK-47’s in a mock-up of a middle-eastern village at a military testing range in the U.S. It was even capable of finding armed men when they were hidden in the shadows if this system were to be armed like the HAROP or be able to guide a missile to the target it could become a formidable hunting system. This sort of thing was once preserve of Hollywood but it will be controlling the future autonomous weapons within years rather than decades these new weapons would offer unmatched speed and precision over any human control system and is now being called the biggest step change since the creation of gunpowder and nuclear weapons. Although this technology will give the edge to the US and their allies that may be short-lived as others are investing heavily in this area and unlike the development of the atomic bomb that required technologies that were very difficult to create, this is mostly software-driven which means it can be a lot easier to develop given the programming resources. Once this has been done they could be cheaply mass produced by any significant military power which also means they could easily find their way into the hands of rogue states or extremists. Aerial vehicles like drones. UAVs and missiles will be the first to use this but there are already calls for such weapons to be banned because of the problems over there ethical and legal position. If an autonomous weapon committed a war crime who would be responsible if no human made the decision. Some say that lethal autonomous weapons will decrease casualties because they can be programmed to follow rules of engagement rigorously and analyze the situation logically. They don’t have emotions they don’t get tired, stressed or distracted like a human competent could and therefore they are less likely to make mistakes and kill civilians. Whatever your views you may have on it there is an inexorable drive for AI in the military and the rise of the robots has already started. 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