Down in the Park

Scientists are growing increasingly shrill about the development of killer robots, which of course means they’re already here.

By Jim Knipfel

The threat posed by Robots Gone Bad has been a mainstay of speculative fiction and sci fi films since the early 20th century, from 1921’s The Mechanical Man through Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy, Chopping Mall, and Saturn 3. If cheap science fiction has taught us anything, it’s that you let intelligent robots make their own decisions, things simply aren’t going to end very well for the human race. They’ll pay about as much attention to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics as Christians do to the Ten Commandments. They’re fucking robots, for godsakes! Of course they’re going to turn on us!

Just like the porn industry has always been the first to capitalize on any new entertainment medium (motion pictures, VHS, CD-ROM, DVD, the Internet), the military has always had a real knack for taking any new, seemingly benign technological development and turning it into a new and snazzy way to slaughter people and demolish property. So over the past couple decades as we’ve seen such major advances in robotics, the eventual militarization of Roombas and those cute little Japanese robot pets just seemed a given. Defense officials didn’t look at the likes of Robocop 2 or The Terminator as cautionary tales, but inspiration. Why, if we could deploy well-armed and autonomous robots on the battlefield, we could avoid placing any more of Our Boys in harm’s way. And hey, these things wipe out a few whole villages full of innocent civilians? Well, it’s not our fault. Go talk to the fucking robot, you got a problem.

In 2013, a group of British scientists, recognizing the potential danger in the development of artificially intelligent autonomous killing machines, got together and formed The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a protest group urging robotics developers to just calm the hell down a minute when it came to putting, you know, machine guns and flame throwers and death rays in the metal hands of their new machines. You go on ahead and make these things, they argue, you’re kjust signing a death warrant for the whole species.  It struck me at the time these guys, smart as they were, were a little late to the game, considering everyone else on the planet knew the danger was real a long damn time ago, and DARPA’s R&D people have been having wet dreams about battlebots since the late ’70s.

Since then, the Coalition has gotten several notables to sign up for the good fight, including the increasingly unstable and paranoid Stephen Hawking. They even got the freaking Pope to come out publicly to say he thinks killer robots are not such a hot idea.

Last week in Davos, Switzerland, at another one of those creepy meetings where  a bunch of billionaires, politicians and scientists get together to decide what kind of fun they might have toying with the rest of us over the course of the next few years, the subject of killer robots came up.

A number of the participants at the meeting in the mountaintop ski resort brought up several very good points. How could a battlefield robot distinguish between allies, enemy troops, civilians, and resistance fighters? And since robots placed in a chaotic environment tend to behave chaotically, how could you stop them from going nuts and killing everything if there is no human interaction? 

Good as many of those questions were, the participants decided not to worry about it much. Killer robots were inevitable anyway. The very fact killer robots were being discussed at Davos right there tells you they’re simply part of the game plan. Then they all went skiing instead, before grabbing a bite at Zum-Zum’s.

Published January 28th, 2016

Jim Knipfel is the author of Slackjaw, The Blow-Off, These Children Who Come at You With Knives, and several other books.