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‘The Terminator Conundrum:’ VCJCS Selva On Thinking Weapons

Posted by Colin Clark on


Terminator army: Warner Bros.

Terminator army from Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines Credit: Warner Bros.

WASHINGTON: The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called today for an international debate about the use of intelligent weapons and of boosted human beings.

“Where do we want to cross that line, and who crosses that first?” asked Gen. Paul Selva — considered one of the brainier occupants of an office that has attracted more than its fair share of top military thinkers — regarding the potential to embed microelectronics in human beings. “When do we want to cross that line as humans? And who wants to cross it first? Those are really hard ethical questions.”

The Pentagon is delving deeply into boosted armor, artificial intelligence, micro-sensors and intelligent prosthetics, so I asked Selva if the US was ready to embrace such technologies. Such technology could give soldiers the ability to run faster, jump higher, see in the dark, gather electronic intelligence, stay awake for long periods (you get the idea…). While he made clear the US wants “step changes” in technologies to counter Russia and China, he was very cautious about the US military plowing ahead with technologies that pose “huge consequences” for humanity.

Gen. Paul Selva

Gen. Paul Selva

These issues pose so many ethical and legal issues — think Skynet and whether we want thinking weapons able to act on their decisions without human intervention — that Selva made clear he believes the international community needs to consider these issues and codify just what would be acceptable in international law. “Do we want a national debate or an international debate? What would our adversaries do with that technology?” he wondered, adding that he though “conventions” would need to address this. That sounds something like the Geneva Conventions that govern the conduct of warfare, but Selva did not elaborate.

Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist, SpaceX owner Elon Musk and 1,000 other scientists and other experts issued a letter in July calling for a ban on weapons run by artificial intelligence.

“If any major military power pushes ahead with AI weapon development, a global arms race is virtually inevitable, and the end point of this technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow,” they said.

What could be the most useful combination of technologies in the near term,ones that wouldn’t necessarily change a country’s military capabilities? “The most fascinating and nearest term potential is microelectronics, and artificial intelligence with connectivity to the human cortex, and additive manufacturing.” He’s talking about the use of prosthetics that could be commanded directly by the human brain. “I’ve actually seen early prototypes of those capabilities and they are astounding,” Selva told the audience at the Brookings Institution here.

Also, Selva revealed that the Pentagon has “a small fund” it can use to invest in new technologies for the Third Offset Strategy, the push to begin developing breakthrough technologies. He said he would not disclose its size.

In an interesting response to a question from my college at FlightGlobal, James Drew, Selva pointed to the Long Range Strike Bomber‘s “system of systems.” They “are going to have to be capable of going into some of the most complex surface-to-air systems that humans have built.” Selva also “in development we tolerated some very early failures” in the LRSB program. He, of course, did not elaborate.

What do you think?