Innovation

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."

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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.

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