The nation’s second-highest ranking military officer believes that our adversaries may try to build completely autonomous "Terminator"-like systems that can conduct lethal operations on the battlefield.
Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday that he believes the United States needs to do "something" to punish actors who pursue such a weapon, though he admitted that international laws or conventions aimed at this would inevitably be violated.
"I don’t think it’s impossible that somebody will try to build a completely autonomous system, and I’m not talking about something like a cruise missile … or a mine that requires a human to target it and release it and it goes and finds its target," Selva told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. when asked about such capabilities. "I’m talking about a wholly robotic system that decides whether or not, at the point of decision, it’s going to do lethal ops."
Selva has previously dubbed debate about the implications of autonomous weapons the "‘Terminator’ conundrum," referring to the science fiction films featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Selva said technologists have told Pentagon leaders that the capability could be developed in 10 years.
"This is about an entirely robotic system, completely autonomous, [that is] not dependent on the human decision," Selva said. "We’re told by the technologists that we’re a decade or so away from that capability."
The Air Force general said that the United States should look at international law as a way to stop state or non-state actors from building autonomous systems that can carry out lethal operations.
However, he cautioned that any measures barring the construction of such capabilities would likely be violated, given the violations of existing international prohibitions on chemical and biological weapons. Syrian President Bashar al Assad has used chemical weapons repeatedly against his own people. The Islamic State, the terrorist group controlling territory in Iraq and Syria and inspiring global attacks, also has leveraged chemical weapons in attacks, according to U.N. investigators.
"I think we do need to examine the bodies of law and convention that might constrain anyone in the world from building that kind of system. But, I’m wholly conscious of the fact that, even if we do that, there will be violators," Selva explained. "In spite of the fact that we don’t approve of chemical or biological weapons, we know there are entities—both states and non-states—that continue to pursue that capability in our world. In spite of the fact that we say we won’t kill women and children, we know there are entities in this world—state and non-state—that don’t care."
"I’m cautious when I say we have to have a set of conventions and rules [inaudible] that govern behavior in this space because it’s highly likely there will be violators," Selva continued. "Until we understand what we want the limits to be, we won’t have a baseline from which to determine if someone is moving on the path of violating the convention that could create something like a ‘Terminator’ that has incredible amounts of complexity and no conscience."
"I think we have to have something, I don’t know what the something is," he added.
Selva has previously warned about the ethical and legal implications of developing lethal systems that rely on artificial intelligence.
"There are ethical implications, there are implications for the laws of war. There are implications for what I call ‘The Terminator’ conundrum: What happens when that thing can inflict mortal harm and is empowered by artificial intelligence?" Selva said in January. "How are we going to know what is in the vehicle’s mind, presuming for the moment that we are capable of creating a vehicle with a mind?"
Selva spoke about the future of joint capabilities and the need for reform and innovation at the Defense Department, especially in the technological sphere. He said the United States is in a period of "great power competition," highlighting challenges from Russia and China.
Selva also said that the United States faces challenges from Iran and North Korea because of their "aspirations to become nuclear powers." Selva listed combatting "violent extremism" as an additional challenge.
"I won’t put a single label on it because we have watched violent extremism over the course of the last couple of decades morph in ways that we have not anticipated," Selva said. "While we think we understand the dynamics of some variables of violent extremism today, that does not give us a crystal clear view of where it might go."
Selva said emerging competitors such as Russia and China have not completely matched America in military capability but have come "pretty close," challenging U.S. forces to find new ways to counter them.
"What we face over the next couple of decades is several very imaginative competitors who have actually looked at what we have done over the last two decades, reflected it back upon us, and challenged us with some of the very same techniques that we are challenging them with. That becomes very difficult to counter," Selva said.
"That’s the environment we find ourselves in: Great power competition with powers who are not necessary our equal but are pretty close, but have picked asymmetric approaches strategically and operationally that seriously challenge us, and so we have to think differently about this problem," he said.