Emerging Tech

The robots are coming: The big question is will you hand over your job - or your life?

A military think-tank has painted a grim picture of the rise of robots in society and warfare.

Even if you don't end up being shot at by robot soldiers there's still a good chance an android will try to steal your job, if a dystopian vision of the world of 2045 as created by a military thinktank comes to a pass.

The Global Strategic Trends report from the in-house thinktank at the UK Ministry of Defence's sets out a vision of the geo-political landscape of 2045 with the aim of providing politicians and military top brass with some context for their long term decision-making.

It looks at the implications of a growing global population and plausible developments in technology and the potential consequences for defence and security. But much of it makes pretty grim reading; the equivalent of taking a pile of dystopian science fiction and stamping it 'official'.

For example, among the more worrying (if slightly sci-fi) scenarios is the potential future rise of sophisticated robotic armies which "could theoretically be operated by a single individual, giving that person enormous power".

This firepower could help authoritarian regimes stay in power in the face of internal uprisings, the report warns, adding "similarly, using robots could significantly amplify the capabilities of small groups of insurgents or terrorists, thereby increasing the threat that they present."

Looking at the tech-focused aspects of the report, put together by the MOD's Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, it predicts that in 30 years time that robots able to carry out complex tasks without a human's direct involvement are likely to be "as ubiquitous as computers are today", and used in many areas from caring roles and customer-service through to surgery and in combat.

"Unmanned systems are increasingly likely to replace people in the workplace, carrying out tasks with increased effectiveness and efficiency, while reducing risk to humans. This could ultimately lead to mass unemployment and social unrest," it warns, perhaps invoking the shade of Rick Deckard by noting "There will almost certainly be challenges to overcome, such as establishing whether we can learn to 'trust' robots."

It said improvements in robotics have "obvious applications" for military usage, noting that unmanned naval vessels such as reconnaissance submarines to probe a hostile shore could be as standard a part of the military set up as drones in the air.

Machines are likely to carry out dangerous or humdrum tasks, such as minefield clearance and delivering supplies across hazardous areas, and there may also be a drive towards replacing infantry soldiers with robots, as society becomes less willing to accept death or injury in warfare. At first robots are likely to work in collaborative human/machine teams, similar to the way that dogs and their handlers currently operate.

There have been fears about the risks of autonomous robots on the battlefield, and this report does little to calm them, warning that while military decision-making is likely to remain the remit of humans for ethical reasons in western countries, "others may not be so willing to make the same trade-offs between speed and accountability."

And despite ongoing moves to regulate the use of autonomous weapons, the report is downbeat. "There is unlikely to be global legal and ethical agreement on the way in which military unmanned systems should be employed."

Some experts believe that robots will begin to replace infantry soldiers for some developed-world militaries within the next ten years, the report said because it is much more palatable to put a machine in harm's way, rather than a human soldier.

That's not necessarily a good thing for everyone: as the researchers note - "If combat is primarily conducted by machines, with much less human involvement, it may become more publicly and politically acceptable, and potentially more likely."

As well as new types of soldiers there are likely to be new weapons too, with the report predicting the emergence of weapons that can target an individual by their 'digital signature' (or perhaps even by their DNA).

Similarly, as people become more connected and dependent on technology, the potential for inflicting significant harm on an adversary without the need for violence, is likely to increase, it predicts. "Power distribution networks or banking systems could be closed down, rather than more physically destructive action being taken."

But the report emphasises that regardless of the technical innovations, it's humans that will still bear the moral responsibility: "War is ultimately a human endeavour. It will be humans who choose to go to war, it will be humans who can stop wars and it will be humans who suffer the consequences of war."

Related stories

About

Steve Ranger is the UK editor of TechRepublic, and has been writing about the impact of technology on people, business and culture for more than a decade. Before joining TechRepublic he was the editor of silicon.com.

10 comments
Treknology
Treknology

"We are United States of America. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile. We will take your distinctiveness and dumb it down to our own."


If the robots are fighting other robots, isn't that just a giant waste of resources? Oh, wait. Politicians are doing that already.

Steve Breland
Steve Breland

With all the fiction about evil computers and robots taking over and how we wish we had never built them in the first place.....if we build them for real...we deserve everything our robot overlords do to us...

Brent Crocker
Brent Crocker

Soon we will all be put out of jobs and humans will go back to hunter gatherers to survive. Will humanoids become lower on the evolutionary scale to robots?

sbarman
sbarman

If a robot wants my job, let it have it. Too many years watching this industry deteriorate, it's time for me to go and let someone else deal with it. 

pjboyles
pjboyles

Your army is only as loyal as your encryption!

Altotus
Altotus

Effective systems do not need to kill. They can neutralize or capture with little or no lethal force. The war paradigm must be examined autonomous killing is not correct or moral. There is no power greater than taking the enemy alive.

mudpuppy1
mudpuppy1

"...with the aim of providing politicians and military top brass with some context for their long term decision-making.". What makes you think it will be any better than their past decisions, both short- and long-term? Their track record isn't exactly stellar now, is it?


Also, do you think those robots will stop the destruction with each other? Sounds like it could lead to a Terminator-type world.

martian
martian

First off, the mere fact that automation, in whichever shape it takes, can only be made to be dystopian by the people who design and makes use of them in such a way.

However, a much better approach to application is outlined in the movie, "Will work for free" available for free viewing online here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0SuGRgdJA_c

In that respect, I resoundingly say: YES! automate the heck out of everything and take away the 1%'s hold on our fragile world and extinguish inequality once and for all. Our current paradigm we call "normal society" is far from sane and way past it's best before date.

There is absolutely NO excuse to allow "life" to continue the way it currently does as there is enough in the world to provide for all, IF managed adequately and responsibly. We don't have a food shortage problem, we have a problem with its distribution. If the former were true, tons of food would not go to waste daily in all of our "western developed" cities while people are homeless and starving in these very same locales.

Of course, money is also irrelevant and needs to be done away with as it is literally the root of all that causes man to do evil.

Editor's Picks