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News Navigator: What are military robots, and what can they do?

The Mainichi Shimbun answers some common questions readers may have about the development of military robots, including some with the ability to make autonomous decisions.

Question: What is a military robot?

Answer: Essentially, a robot is a machine that utilizes sensors to ascertain what's going on around it, assesses the situation and makes decisions using artificial intelligence (AI), instead of relying on a human operator. If the purpose of the robot is military in nature, then it is a military robot.

Q: What kinds of military robots are there?

A: There are many types, including the famous United States military's Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and other flying drones, and small robots used for bomb disposal. Currently, all the military robots in service require a human operator. However, if you observe their actions closely, most of these machines are also equipped with an AI that allows them to act on their own, such as recognizing their surroundings and making certain decisions.

Q: Does the same go for self-driving military vehicles?

A: Yes, it does. In July this year, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) began deploying driverless vehicles that as a rule operate without a human controller or anyone on board. That is, they are autonomous machines. They are designed to patrol designated areas and have specific responses to obstacles or threats, but are not meant for deployment in urban settings. The onboard AI was developed with machine learning capabilities, allowing it to learn from its surroundings to make decisions and respond to the circumstances at hand.

However, to prevent safety lapses that may result from the vehicle's AI making decisions that are unpredictable to human beings, the IDF has taken measures to give regularity to the car's scope of operations. In the private sector, Google is trying to develop a completely autonomous car. However, most major car makers -- including those in Japan -- are designing their automated vehicles based on the assumption that there will also be a human driver in the car.

Q: Are autonomous robots for killing people also possible?

A: Autonomous killing machines are indeed feasible, technologically speaking. Some are calling robotic weapons the third great military technology revolution, after gunpowder and nuclear arms. In July last year, British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and other scientists released an open letter calling for an absolute ban on "offensive autonomous weapons beyond meaningful human control." (By Tomoko Ohji, Jerusalem Bureau)

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