|Directed by||Stewart Sugg|
|Produced by||Matt Nelson|
|Written by||Matt Wood|
|Narrated by||Stuart Russell|
Slaughterbots is a 2017 arms-control advocacy video presenting a dramatized near-future scenario where swarms of inexpensive microdrones use artificial intelligence and facial recognition to assassinate political opponents based on preprogrammed criteria. The video was released onto YouTube by the Future of Life Institute and Stuart Russell, a professor of computer science at Berkeley, on 12 November 2017. The video quickly went viral, gaining over two million views. The video was also screened to the November 2017 United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons meeting in Geneva.
The dramatization, seven minutes in length, is set in a Black Mirror-style near future. Small, palm-sized autonomous drones using facial recognition and shaped explosives can be programmed to seek out and eliminate known individuals or classes of individuals (such as individuals wearing an enemy military uniform). A tech executive pitches that nuclear weapons are now "obsolete": a $25 million order of "unstoppable" drones can kill half a city. As the video unfolds, the technology get re-purposed by unknown parties to assassinate political opponents, from sitting congressmen to student activists identified via their Facebook profiles. In one scene, the swarming drones coordinate with each other to gain entrance to a building: a larger drone blasts a hole in a wall to give access to smaller ones.
The dramatization is followed by a forty-second entreaty by Russell: "This short film is more than just speculation; it shows the results of integrating and miniaturizing technologies that we already have... AI's potential to benefit humanity is enormous, even in defense, but allowing machines to choose to kill humans will be devastating to our security and freedom."
According to Russell, "What we were trying to show was the property of autonomous weapons to turn into weapons of mass destruction automatically because you can launch as many as you want... and so we thought a video would make it very clear." Russell also expressed a desire to displace the unrealistic and unhelpful Hollywood "Terminator" conception of autonomous weapons with something more realistic. The video was produced by Space Digital at MediaCityUK and directed by Stewart Sugg with location shots at Hertfordshire University and in Edinburgh. Edinburgh was chosen because the filmmakers "needed streets that would be empty on a Sunday morning" for the shots of armed police patrolling deserted streets, and because the location is recognizable to international audiences. All of the drones were added in post-production.
In December 2017 The Economist assessed the feasibility of Slaughterbots in relation to the U.S. MAST and DCIST microdrone programs. MAST currently has a cyclocopter that weighs less than 30 grams, but that has the downside of being easily disturbed by its own reflected turbulence when too close to a wall. Another candidate is something like Salto, a 98-gram hopping robot, which performs better than cyclocopters in confined spaces. The level of autonomous inter-drone coordination shown in Slaughterbots is currently not available, but this too is starting to change. Overall The Economist agreed that "slaughterbots" may become feasible in the foreseeable future: "In 2008, a spy drone that you could hold in the palm of your hand was an idea from science fiction. Such drones are now commonplace... When DCIST wraps up in 2022, the idea of Slaughterbots may seem a lot less fictional than it does now." The Economist is skeptical that arms control could prevent such a militarization of drone swarms: "As someone said of nuclear weapons after the first one was detonated, the only secret worth keeping is now out: the damn things work".
Paul Scharre of the Center for a New American Security disagreed with the feasibility of the video's scenario, stating that "Every military technology has a countermeasure, and countermeasures against small drones aren't even hypothetical. The U.S. government is actively working on ways to shoot down, jam, fry, hack, ensnare, or otherwise defeat small drones. The microdrones in the video could be defeated by something as simple as chicken wire. The video shows heavier-payload drones blasting holes through walls so that other drones can get inside, but the solution is simply layered defenses." Scharre also stated that Russell's implied proposal, a legally binding treaty banning autonomous weapons, "won't solve the real problems humanity faces as autonomy advances in weapons. A ban won't stop terrorists from fashioning crude DIY robotic weapons... In fact, it's not even clear whether a ban would prohibit the weapons shown in the video, which are actually fairly discriminate."
In April 2018 the governmental Swiss Drones and Robotics Centre, referencing Slaughterbots, tested a 3-gram shaped charge on a head model and concluded that it would cause "injuries are so severe that the chances of survival are very small".
Matt McFarland of CNN opined that "Perhaps the most nightmarish, dystopian film of 2017 didn't come from Hollywood". McFarland also stated that the debate over banning killer robots had taken a "sensationalistic" turn: In 2015, "they relied on open letters and petitions with academic language", and used dry language like 'armed quadcopters'. Now, in 2017, "they are warning of 'slaughterbots'".
- Lethal autonomous weapon
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