UK Defense Chief Says Army Could Have 30,000 Robots by the 2030s

British troops and service personal remaining in Afghanistan are joined by International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) personnel and civilians as they gather for a Remembrance Sunday service at Kandahar Airfield November 9, 2014 in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Photo: Matt Cardy (Getty Images)

This is not a movie; this is real life. It is not a drill. In about a decade, we might see a ton of robots working alongside humans in the UK army. But don’t worry, although some of the robots will have weapons, only humans will be able to fire them. (That’s a relief, I think?)

UK defense chief Gen. Nick Carter said in an interview on Sunday that by the 2030s, the country’s armed forces could include a large amount of autonomous or remotely controlled machines, per the Guardian. The country’s Ministry of Defense had made robot warfare a major part of its five-year budget proposal. However, government officials have postponed talks on the spending review because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“I mean I suspect we can have an army of 120,000, of which 30,000 might be robots, who knows,” Carter told Sky News. “But the answer is we need to open our minds to perhaps numbers not determining what we should be doing but rather the effect that we can achieve, is really what we should be looking for.”

The army currently has 73,870 troops, the Guardian reported, which is below its 82,050 goal. It has struggled with recruitment for years.

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Carter said the Ministry of Defense was arguing for a multi-year budget because it needed long-term investment. This type of investment allows it to have “confidence,” in modernization, the general argued.

“Modernization essentially means you are going to park some capabilities, perhaps from the industrial age, and want to look forward to some of the capabilities you need for an information age,” Carter said.

He said didn’t know if the government would approve the department’s proposed budget. Due to the pandemic, the government is preparing one-year spending budgets, according to Sky News. Carter said that the negotiations were going on in a constructive way.

So what exactly would the UK’s army robots looks like? It’s not clear yet, but the Guardian does offer one example of technology currently under development by the ministry: the i9 drone. The i9 is a human-operated drone that can fly indoors and use AI to find and identify targets. Oh, and it also has dual shotguns. However, it cannot shoot these shotguns on its own, per Ministry of Defense policy. A human operator has to tell it when to fire or stand down.

Because it is operated remotely, it is intended to be used to in breaching operations, i.e. when the army storms an enclosed area or building where enemy forces could be hiding. These are the most dangerous types of military operations and often have high casualties.

In the future, the UK would like for the i9 to be able to knock other drones out of the sky, like a battering ram, and replace its shotguns with a rocket or chain gun. Sounds totally not scary.

In the interview, Carter warned that there was a risk of another world war and that the country needed to be conscious of that risk.

Although using robots to prevent human causalities makes sense, it can also led to potentially terrifying situations. As noted by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, fully autonomous weapons could decide which humans live and die, make the decision to go to war easier or commit tragic mistakes that make things worse.

Does this mean that all robots are horrible ideas? No, but there’s a big difference between a funky looking robot dog that can open doors and a powerful, menacing robot soldier that can be used to kill people, or decide to do so on its own. Think about it.

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Jody Serrano