Autonomous Weapons: Coming to a Future Near You?

Militaries have been messing with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for more than 150 years. Of course, some of those early ones — balloons loaded with bombs, launched by the Austrian Empire in the First Italian War of Independence — aren't nearly as scary (or deadly) as the remotely piloted drones we see today. But both could be outclassed by autonomous weapons. These near-future instruments, programmed with artificial intelligence (AI), would select and engage targets with absolutely no guidance from human beings.

In this HowStuffWorks Now video, we break down the arguments for and against this technology, and discuss one group that's firmly in the latter camp. They've collected over 20,000 signatures on an open letter that recommends preemptively banning autonomous weapons:


Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology has reached a point where the deployment of such systems is — practically if not legally — feasible within years, not decades, and the stakes are high: autonomous weapons have been described as the third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear arms.

The signatories and endorsers include researchers from companies like Google and Facebook, professors from hundreds of universities and science/technology experts ranging from Stephen Hawking and Noam Chomsky to Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak.

The open letter indicates that this technology is mere years away, not decades, given the increasing speed of advances in AI and robotics. Consider that it took the U.S. more than 50 years to go from experimenting with strapping bombs on bats during World War II to creating its first battle drone, the Predator, in 1995, but that drones are everywhere today, just 20 years later.