May 29, 2017      

As countries such as India, Israel, and Russia develop their military robotics niches, real questions have emerged as to how the race for robot soldiers will affect the world.

This becomes even more important when you consider that in places like Asia, defense automation spending is expected to rise by 67% to $2.4 billion in 2018. Over the next 10 years, global spending on military and consumer drones could skyrocket to $89 billion.

Does this mean rising nations such as China and India will soon play a bigger role in military robotics than the U.S.?

Here are four global consequences to think about as countries race to develop robot soldiers.

Business Takeaways:

  • Robot soldiers, weaponized drones, and military UGVs are just part of the growth in military automation. AI controls and policies governing them must also grow.
  • As nations compete to develop unmanned and autonomous weapons systems, they will create patent pools and restrictions on suppliers.
  • Even if fears of killer robots are overblown or premature, the threat of proliferation of military robotics and AI to non-state actors is real.

Regulating the robotic arms trade

How will nations regulate the trade of military robotics?

Robot soldiers will be part of global military expenditures.

Map of nations by military expenditure as a percentage of GDP. (Source: Wikipedia; click here to enlarge.)

The U.S. is currently the global leader in exporting armed drones. In 2015, the U.S. had to change its rules to make it easier to export unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to customers such as Italy and the United Arab Emirates.

More recently, the U.S. went one step further. Last August, the U.S. government unveiled the “Proposed Joint Declaration of Principles for the Export and Subsequent Use of Armed or Strike-Enabled Unmanned Aerial Systems.”

This plan is a two-pronged strategy. First, it would create international rules to govern the trade and use of armed drones. Second, it would allow the U.S. to export UAVs to the world.

A similar international framework could follow for other types of robot soldiers. Could such policies regulate which companies countries can use, among other things?

For example, Russia could forbid its defense companies from using robotics parts sourced from the U.S. or Europe, and vice versa.

Russia could also set such a ban as a bloc-wide policy within the Eurasian Economic Union, an economic zone made up of Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan.

If this happens, defense companies in the U.S. and Europe specializing in robotics, drones, and artificial intelligence would have lost a market with a population of more than 150 million.

Intellectual property another front

China has created its own patent pool for robotics — specifically industrial automation. The goal is to reduce its reliance on other countries for robotics.

How might other nations follow China’s example to protect the intellectual property around their own defense specialties?

Israel, for instance, could generate patents to ensure that its military automation is protected and that it is not reliant on technologies from other countries. But while Israel would be protecting its own innovations, it would create challenges for businesses elsewhere using the same or similar technologies.

In addition, there’s the question of whether governments competing to develop robot soldiers will abide by patents and international guidelines.

Autonomous arms trickle down

While most military robotics discussions revolve around country-level initiatives, the technology could soon be used by non-state actors.

Last summer, the Foreign Military Studies Office, part of the U.S. Army, published a report on how terrorist groups are using remote-controlled weapons. The report highlighted 21 incidents.

Tomorrow, as military robotics proliferates further, will terrorist groups begin using UGVs, cheap exoskeletons, and more?

Robotics suppliers should have a strategy for dealing with their components and systems falling into enemy hands and being adopted by groups they never intended?

AI and robot soldiers go MAD

Although most developers of military robotics and AI have tried to reassure the public that they are not developing killer robots, numerous observers have said that ethics guidelines are necessary.

Robot soldiers could be the new MAD.

MAD for robot soldiers isn’t yet an existential threat like nuclear weapons, but it could be a zero-sum game.

As with other technologies, autonomous weapons systems could change the balance of power and lead to a new arms race. Is military robotics the new mutually assured destruction (MAD)?

This does not mean that robot soldiers or unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) carry the same risk as a nuclear bomb. Instead, they carry a similar threat.

Because they are unmanned, these systems won’t leave an area until an objective is met (like attacking a city) or they themselves are destroyed. Either way, it is a zero-sum game.

Only five countries voted to ban killer robots in 2014. Will the threat of a new MAD change things?

More on International and Military Robotics:

Fear, awe, or resolve

The world is currently looking at military robotics through two lenses. There is either fear of killer robot soldiers or awe toward the innovations coming through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

While these two reactions are natural, corporate and national strategies need more than being scared or stunned. Robotics, AI, drones, and the Internet of Things are part of a new toolset that is changing warfare.

Organizations like the United Nations and World Trade Organization must develop standards for the trade of military robotics. At the same time, companies will have to protect their innovations while countries avoid the restrictions of protectionist patents.

North Korea and Iran have tested the world’s resolve regarding nuclear proliferation. As more countries and non-state actors develop and deploy robot soldiers, the question remains where a robotics arms race will lead.