Microsoft chief Brad Smith says rise of killer robots is 'unstoppable'

Robin Pagnamenta
The technology which enables robots to kill is likely to spread to many countries in time - Warner Br

The rise of killer robots is now unstoppable and a new digital Geneva Convention is essential to protect the world from the growing threat they pose, according to the President of the world’s biggest technology company.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, said the use of 'lethal autonomous weapon systems' poses a host of new ethical questions which need to be considered by governments as a matter of urgency.

He said the rapidly advancing technology, in which flying, swimming or walking drones can be equipped with lethal weapons systems – missiles, bombs or guns – which could be programmed to operate entirely or partially autonomously, "ultimately will spread… to many countries".

The US, China, Israel, South Korea, Russia and the UK are all developing weapon systems with a significant degree of autonomy in the critical functions of selecting and attacking targets.

The technology is a growing focus for many militaries because replacing troops with machines can make the decision to go to war easier.

But it remains unclear who is responsible for deaths or injuries caused by a machine – the developer, manufacturer, commander or the device itself.

Smith said killer robots must "not be allowed to decide on their own to engage in combat and who to kill" and argued that a new international convention needed to be drawn up to govern the use of the technology.

“The safety of civilians is at risk today. We need more urgent action, and we need it in the form of a digital Geneva Convention, rules that will protect civilians and soldiers.” 

Speaking at the launch of his new book, Tools and Weapons, at the Microsoft store in London’s Oxford Circus, Smith said there was also a need for stricter international rules over the use of facial recognition technology and other emerging forms of artificial intelligence.

“There needs to be there needs to be a new law in this space, we need regulation in the world of facial recognition in order to protect against potential abuse.”

He expressed optimism about the UK’s exit from the European Union and said the economy had so far remained resilient.

Brad Smith also believes there should be more regulation around facial recognition technology   Credit: David Mcnew/Getty

But he said Britain’s Brexit saga was like the fourth season of a TV boxed set drama series which is going on too long and needs to end soon.

“Regardless of how one feels about Brexit, it's not necessarily an issue that benefits from year after year of debate.

"It's a little bit like now entering the fourth season of a TV series that hit its most suspenseful point long ago. At some point, you just want the season to conclude. It will be good to have an ending and hopefully a happier one.”

The technology to develop lethal autonomous weapons is facing a growing public backlash.

Thousands of Google employees have signed a pledge not to develop AI for use in weapons.

The international Campaign to Stop Killer Robots has doubled in size over the past year to include 113 NGOs in 57 countries.