Entertainers and writers have never been short of producing fictional accounts of rogue robots — from the killing machine that is The Terminator to the robot army of I, Robot.
But how far off are we from seeing these type of robots take the leap from the big screen to a seat beside us?
Several decades away, according to Stephen Quinn, chief land operations division, Defence Science and Technology Organisation, Department of Defence, with ethical issues playing a significant role in holding back the development of weaponised robots which are capable of thinking for themselves.
Quinn told Computerworld Australia a situation where a robot is in a combat role and able to make its own decision on whether to open fire is a far off reality.
“Do I see a time in the future when a robot will make a decision to shoot or not shoot? The answer is no. I don’t believe that I’ll see that in my lifetime or my children’s lifetime — maybe my grandchildren's [lifetime] as well,” he says.
“It’s one thing to have the technological capability to do that sort of thing, it’s quite another thing to address all the legal ramifications of a man in the loop and a decision being taken relative to the application of what could be construed as lethal force.”
Quinn said Australia is not currently using robots to fire weapons and Defence robots are always controlled by an operator.
Publicly, the Department of Defence has not hinted at any plans to acquire autonomous weapons systems either. In its 2012 Defence Capability Plan (DCP), which provides information on proposed major capital equipment acquisitions under government consideration for the next four years, no autonomous weapons systems are listed.
However, the DCP also states in the publication information in the DCP “does not include a small number of classified or sensitive proposals”.
The role of ethics
Quinn believes it will be ethics that drives future robot development.
“It’s my view … that the ethics of robotics will very sensibly delay the technologies of robotics, particularly relative to weaponisation…
“On a personal basis, I think the ethics should drive policy and I think the way that policy would be expected to operate in the Australian context, relative to Australian forces, is that there is a place for autonomy. [But] there is no place for autonomy relative to weapons release in land robotics.”