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Bots on the ground: can the rise of “killer robots” be halted?

Such weapons are already being developed by national militaries and terrorist groups.

Killer robots – the phrase sounds as if it were lifted from a sci-fi film. But this is no mere fantasy.

On 20 August, 116 of the world’s leading artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics researchers signed an open letter urging the United Nations to ban the development and use of killer robots. The letter, signed by tech leaders such as Tesla’s Elon Musk and Mustafa Suleyman of Alphabet’s DeepMind, cited fears that the robots would unleash a “third revolution in warfare” and start a new arms race.

Public discussion of robotics and AI has become widespread after recent technological advances. Even then, the idea of murdering machines seems far-fetched. Yet such weapons are already being developed by national militaries as well as terrorist groups. In the absence of international action, the world risks becoming yet more hazardous.

A killer robot in the vein of RoboCop is still a distant reality. Depending on the definition, a landmine, which is technically the oldest automatically triggered weapon, could fall under the umbrella. Yet in their current iterations, killer robots, or lethal autonomous weapons (Laws), are specific military robots that have the ability to identify and attack targets without human intervention.

Most Laws still maintain a human “on the loop”, but many experts have predicted that fully functional ones could become a reality as soon as in 2040. Laws come in many guises, both for attack and defence purposes, and they are already being used by countries with advanced military capabilities, such as the US, Germany and India.

Israel’s Iron Dome is a defensive Law, with autonomous targeting and firing capabilities, and is renowned for its efficiency in destroying incoming rockets. The US navy has used radar-guided guns to identify and attack predators since 1970. A 2016 Wired article revealed that the Pentagon is currently researching at least 21 projects involving autonomous weapons. The UK, meanwhile, is working with arms company BAE Systems to develop the Taranis drone, which would be almost invisible and could incorporate full autonomy by the end of testing.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots (CSKR) has been calling for a pre-emptive ban on Law development and use since 2013. The weapons, the group argued, should be added to the list of those banned in 1983 by the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. Leading tech companies, researchers and organisations such as Human Rights Watch have also been successful in drawing international attention to the issue of killer robots.

In 2015, CSKR organised an open letter, also signed by Musk and Stephen Hawking, which served as the catalyst for the agreement of UN talks. The group was instrumental in the publication of the latest letter to coincide with the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Melbourne.

Not all tech experts believe that a ban on Laws is justified. In a research paper for Stanford University, Kenneth Anderson and Matthew Waxman argued, “Just as increased automation in many fields is inevitable, automation in weapons will occur, and is occurring, incrementally” – echoing the sentiment of many other legal researchers.

Military experts have highlighted the difficulty of distinguishing autonomous weapons from others. Similarly, the Ministry of Defence responded to the recent open letter by stating that the British government does not support a pre-emptive ban on Laws (though it does not intend to develop the technology). Yet others maintain that a comprehensive ban is the only safe course.

The legal, ethical and humanitarian implications of Laws are profound. Experts have warned that some harmful consequences may not be clear until it is too late. As the latest open letter stated: “They [the weapons] will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend.”

Human Rights Watch has warned of the difficulty of ascribing individual responsibility in the event of an accidental death or a misfire, as well as the danger of “undesirable hacking”. The weapons also risk being deployed by terrorists and extremists of all kinds.

Some of those fears have already been confirmed. A lengthy report on drones by the New America think tank stated that Isis created an “Unmanned Aircraft of the Mujahedeen” unit in 2017. Other terrorist groups such as Hezbollah have long used drones and other unmanned vehicles to carry out surveillance and counter-attacks.

At the end of 2016, 123 countries agreed to hold talks on Laws under the auspices of the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons. But the meetings have yet to take place; the most recent was delayed owing to committee members’ unpaid fees. Time is short to halt the rise of “killer robots”. As the open letter warned: “Once this Pandora’s Box is opened, it will be hard to close.” 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia

The Isle of Man, from where author Zoe Gilbert hails. CREDIT: GETTY
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Zoe Gilbert’s original debut novel Folk feeds our new appetite for myth

Is Folk a novel? Its publisher says so, but I’m not sure.

I’ll put up my hands and make an admission: I don’t read many contemporary novels. Most of them seem, well, too contemporary. For a long time, much “literary” fiction has skated along the surface of modern urban life, engaging with the “interiority” of the middle-class mind and whatever cultural brouhaha is currently in fashion among the progressive literati.

The result is a kind of placid, smug dullness about which it’s mostly impossible to care: an Ian McEwan-isation of the soul. For years, writers shunned or simply ignored the old storytellers’ realms of mythology, image and the collective unconscious; the strange, magical depths which underlie all things, but which our society prefers to pretend is not really there.

But something is stirring. In recent years, novelists have begun to venture out beyond the shores of reason, beyond the city and sometimes beyond the human, too. The result is a small blooming of books, and of films and music, which are exploring this strange otherness again. Writers such as Daisy Johnson, Andrew Michael Hurley, Sylvia Linsteadt and Ben Myers are pushing the boundaries of what has been called “folk horror”. They, in turn, are drawing from a thriving underworld of eeriness, folk culture and myth that is perhaps unparalleled in Britain since the 1970s.

What is going on here? Well, people are hungry. Hungry for real meat, and missing what they don’t know they have lost. What we might call the “folk soul” still undergirds our vision of the world, however many gadgets we use to navigate it. Why else would the likes of Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings continue to grip the popular imagination?

The surface is not enough. Our culture is starving people of spiritual and mythic nourishment. We barely even know what these words mean any more, so how would our writers know how to engage with them? Yet when our stories remain stuck in a permanent present, something is missing – something old, strange and sacred. “Fantasy” novelists such as Alan Garner, M John Harrison and the late Ursula K Le Guin, have long known this better than their “literary” counterparts.

In this vein comes Folk, the debut novel by Zoe Gilbert, a past winner of the Costa Short Story Award. It draws deeply from the old tales of the Isle of Man, from where the author hails, to give us a book which is genuinely original, disturbing, beautiful and gripping. It is both a joy to read, and –always a bonus – a tricky book to pin down

Is Folk a novel? Its publisher says it is, but I’m not sure. It has recurring characters, but no single storyline; each chapter could stand alone. So is it a collection of short stories? Yes, but no: the same characters recur throughout, popping in and out of each others’ tales and adding to the weight of the whole. That whole makes up a convincing world peopled with distinctive characters, a verdant, living landscape and a liminality of strange beings who regularly intrude upon the everyday lives of the humans.

Perhaps Folk is neither a novel nor a collection of stories; perhaps it is a map. Indeed, one of its attractions for me is that a map of Neverness, the fictional village in which the stories are set, is the first thing you see when you open the book. (I am a sucker for books with maps in the front: I grew up on fantasy novels, and the cartography was always part of the attraction.) Folk can be read as a map of the British mythic imagination: of the river under the river. Starkly original and expertly written, it draws you, like a faerie song, into a kingdom from which you may never escape, and may not want to.

Gilbert’s writing has shades of Le Guin and Angela Carter, and like both of those authors she knows that real mythology, real folk culture, has a core of darkness to it; a core that both repels and entices. True fairytales are not fluffy, and they often do not have happy endings. There is an undercurrent of earthy danger here; a raw sexuality too, unashamed of itself.

A young boy is burned alive in a gorse bush, seeing visions of angels; a girl’s father kills and skins her pet hares; a woman is kidnapped by a water bull and ravished beneath the waves; a girl drowns her father by mistake; a woman murders her sister to steal her lover. But the darkness is not revelled in or overdone; it is intrinsic to the book’s realism. “Realism” might seem a bizarre word to use about tales set in a mythic land in which men are born with wings for arms and women become hares. But in a book like this, it is imperative that the newly-minted world has an internal logic and consistency.

Folk succeeds triumphantly in this regard. Reading its chapters – which have titles like “The Neverness Ox-men”, “Fishskin, Hareskin”, and “A Winter Guest” – is like sitting by a fire with some old storyteller, listening to the strange tales of his people. The work that has gone into creating the world of Neverness has paid off. These seem like stories from a real place.

This is the marker of the novel’s success: that immersion in its world makes that world seem, for a while, more real than the one you are living in. More appealing, too. When you turn the last page, you may find yourself looking out of the window, or at the screen of your phone or laptop, with a pang of regret and a sense of loss. Then you might find yourself returning to Neverness, like the children return to Narnia. It beats what passes at the moment for “reality”, and it is more human, too. 

“Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” by Paul Kingsnorth is published in paperback by Faber & Faber

Zoe Gilbert
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game