Worried about the autonomous weapons of the future? Look at what’s already gone wrong | WHAT REALLY HAPPENED X-Frame-Options: DENY X-Frame-Options: SAMEORIGIN

Worried about the autonomous weapons of the future? Look at what’s already gone wrong

To the casual observer, the words “military AI” have a certain dystopic ring to them, one that’s in line with sci-fi movies like “Terminator” that depict artificial intelligence (AI) run amok. And while the “killer robots” cliché does at least provide an entry point into a debate about transformative military technologies, it frames autonomous AI weapons as a challenge for tomorrow, rather than today. But a close look at the history of one common type of weapons package, the air defense systems that militaries employ to defend against missiles and other airborne threats, illuminates how highly automated weaponry is actually a risk the world already faces.

As practical, real-world examples, air defense systems can ground a debate over autonomous weapons that’s often abstract and speculative. Heads of state and defense policymakers have made clear their intentions to integrate greater autonomous functionality into weapons (and many other aspects of military operations). And while many policymakers say they want to ensure humans remain in control over lethal force, the example of air defense systems shows that they face large obstacles.

Weapons like the US Army’s Patriot missile system, designed to shoot down missiles or planes that threaten protected airspace, include autonomous features that support targeting. These systems now come in many different shapes and sizes and can be typically operated in manual or various automatic modes. In automatic modes, the air defense systems can on their own detect targets and fire on them, relegating human operators to the role of supervising the system’s workings and, if necessary, of aborting attacks. The Patriot air defense system, used by 13 countries, is “nearly autonomous, with only the final launch decision requiring human interaction,” according to research by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.