Swarms of robots with the ability to kill humans are no longer only the stuff of science fiction. Lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) are here. In Ukraine, Moscow has allegedly deployed an artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled Kalashnikov ZALA Aero KUB-BLA loitering munition, while Kyiv has used Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones, which have some autonomous capabilities. Although it’s always hard to determine whether a weapon’s autonomous mode is used, these technologies have reportedly been employed in at least one conflict: Last year, a United Nations report suggested Turkey used autonomous firing by its Kargu-2 drones to hunt fleeing soldiers in Libya’s civil war (though the CEO of the Turkish company that produced the drone denies it is capable of this).
Unlike traditional drones, these systems have the ability to navigate on their own, and some can select targets. Although a human controller can still decide whether or not to strike, such weapons are acquiring ever more autonomous capabilities. Now that militaries and paramilitaries worldwide have taken note, these technologies are poised to spread widely. The world today stands at the very moment before much more advanced versions of these technologies become ubiquitous.
So far, at least Israel, Russia, South Korea, and Turkey have reportedly deployed weapons with autonomous capabilities—though whether this mode was active is disputed—and Australia, Britain, China, and the United States are investing heavily in developing LAWS with an ever-expanding range of sizes and capabilities.