For too long, we have lived in a future that has given us bupkis. Yeah, we’ve gotten faster internet and phones that can do more stuff, but ultimately, high-speed internet and increasingly sophisticated mobile devices are just ways that companies can more efficiently command our attention and sell us ads. I’d gladly trade the ability to design a custom pair of Nikes in one app while doing my taxes in another for some sort of new object that, even if it doesn’t really have a point, is a thing that has never existed before.
This, I think, is the main reason that I really want to buy myself a toy robot for Christmas. Watching a little machine autonomously zip around the floor while freaking out my dog would bring me more joy than I can possibly describe, and even if my dog didn’t end up befriending it (related: my greatest dream in life is giving my dog a robot best friend) and instead hated it so much that I could never actually play with it, it would be worth it — if only because it would offer true confirmation that I was, in fact, living in the future.
On the other hand, non-toy robots seem generally like a bad thing. Robots displace human jobs, they’re shitty drivers, and have an unfortunate tendency to absorb and codify the biases of their creators (Yet another argument for toy robots: they’re not very sophisticated, and if you don’t connect them to the internet there’s no chance they’ll spy on you). And, some day alarmingly soon, they’re going to be extremely good at killing people in war.
The Congressional Research Service, the in-house independent think tank of the U.S. Congress, has released a report detailing the future of military uses of robotics and artificial intelligence. According to the report, both Russia and China are “aggressively pursuing” advanced robotic and AI weapons systems “that could be used against U.S. forces.” Meanwhile, our own military is looking to introduce robotic tanks, autonomous cargo vehicles, and is looking into something called the “Fully Autonomous First Wave Concept” — which, as its name might suggest, would involve “robotic and autonomous aerial, amphibious, and ground platforms [...] employed as the first wave of an amphibious assault.”
In other words, the American military thinks it needs killer robots because China and Russia are making them. But in all likelihood, the only reason the Chinese military thinks it needs killer robots is that America and Russia are making them, and the only reason the Russian military thinks it needs killer robots is that China and America are making them.
Much like nuclear weapons, pretty much nobody besides members of the military-industrial complex is excited about the idea that militaries will soon be able to get their hands on a lush array of death-dealing automatons. The CRS notes that everyone from Stephen Hawking to the United Nations to the amazingly named organization the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is concerned about a world in which drone-tanks and worse run amok.