AI begins ushering in an age of killer robots

In a field on the outskirts of Kyiv, the founders of Vyriy, a Ukrainian drone company, were recently at work on a weapon of the future.

To demonstrate it, Oleksii Babenko, 25, Vyriy’s CEO, hopped on his motorcycle and rode down a dirt path. Behind him, a drone followed, as a colleague tracked the movements from a briefcase-size computer.

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Until recently, a human would have piloted the quadcopter. No longer. Instead, after the drone locked onto its target — Babenko — it flew itself, guided by software that used the machine’s camera to track him.

The motorcycle’s growling engine was no match for the silent drone as it stalked Babenko.

If the drone had been armed with explosives, and if his colleagues hadn’t disengaged the autonomous tracking, Babenko would have been a goner.

Vyriy is just one of many Ukrainian companies working on a major leap forward in the weaponization of consumer technology, driven by the war with Russia. The pressure to outthink the enemy, along with huge flows of investment, donations and government contracts, has turned Ukraine into a Silicon Valley for autonomous drones and other weaponry.

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What the companies are creating is technology that makes human judgment about targeting and firing increasingly tangential. The widespread availability of off-the-shelf devices, easy-to-design software, powerful automation algorithms and specialized artificial intelligence microchips has pushed a deadly innovation race into uncharted territory, fueling a potential new era of killer robots.

The most advanced versions of the technology that allows drones and other machines to act autonomously have been made possible by deep learning, a form of AI that uses large amounts of data to identify patterns and make decisions. Deep learning has helped generate popular large language models, like OpenAI’s GPT-4, but it also helps make models interpret and respond in real time to video and camera footage. That means software that once helped a drone follow a snowboarder down a mountain can now become a deadly tool.

In more than a dozen interviews with Ukrainian entrepreneurs, engineers and military units, a picture emerged of a near future when swarms of self-guided drones can coordinate attacks and machine guns with computer vision can automatically shoot down soldiers. More outlandish creations, like a hovering unmanned copter that wields machine guns, are also being developed.

While these weapons aren’t as advanced as expensive military-grade systems made by the United States, China and Russia, what makes the developments significant is their low cost — just thousands of dollars or less — and ready availability.

Except for the munitions, many of these weapons are built with code found online and components that can be bought from Best Buy and a hardware store. Some U.S. officials said they worried that the abilities could soon be used to carry out terrorist attacks.

For Ukraine, the technologies could provide an edge against Russia, which is also developing autonomous killer gadgets — or simply help it keep pace. The systems raise the stakes in an international debate about the ethical and legal ramifications of AI on the battlefield. Human rights groups and United Nations officials want to limit the use of autonomous weapons for fear that they may trigger a new global arms race that could spiral out of control.

In Ukraine, such concerns are secondary to fighting off an invader.

“We need maximum automation,” said Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation, who has led the country’s efforts to use tech startups to expand advanced fighting capabilities. “These technologies are fundamental to our victory.”

Autonomous drones like Vyriy’s have already been used in combat to hit Russian targets, according to Ukrainian officials and video verified by The New York Times. Fedorov said the government was working to fund drone companies to help them rapidly scale up production.

In a ramshackle workshop in an apartment building in eastern Ukraine, Dev, a 28-year-old soldier in the 92nd Assault Brigade, has helped push innovations that turned cheap drones into weapons. First, he strapped bombs to racing drones, then added larger batteries to help them fly farther and recently incorporated night vision so the machines can hunt in the dark.

In May, he was one of the first to use autonomous drones, including those from Vyriy. While some required improvements, Dev said, he believed that they would be the next big technological jump to hit the front lines.

Autonomous drones are “already in high demand,” he said. The machines have been especially helpful against jamming that can break communications links between drone and pilot. With the drone flying itself, a pilot can simply lock onto a target and let the device do the rest.

Makeshift factories and labs have sprung up across Ukraine to build remote-controlled machines of all sizes, from long-range aircraft and attack boats to cheap kamikaze drones — abbreviated as FPVs, for first-person view, because they are guided by a pilot wearing virtual-reality-like goggles that give a view from the drone. Many are precursors to machines that will eventually act on their own.

Efforts to automate FPV flights began last year, but were slowed by setbacks building flight control software, according to Fedorov, who said those problems had been resolved. The next step was to scale the technology with more government spending, he said, adding that about 10 companies were already making autonomous drones.

“We already have systems which can be mass-produced, and they’re now extensively tested on the front lines, which means they’re already actively used,” Fedorov said.

On a hot afternoon in May in the eastern Ukrainian region known as the Donbas, Yurii Klontsak, a 23-year-old reservist, trained four soldiers to use the latest futuristic weapon: a gun turret with autonomous targeting that works with a PlayStation controller and a tablet.

Speaking over booms of nearby shelling, Klontsak explained how the gun, called Wolly after a resemblance to the Pixar robot WALL-E, can auto-lock on a target up to 1,000 meters away and jump between preprogrammed positions to quickly cover a broad area. The company making the weapon, DevDroid, was also developing an auto-aim to track and hit moving targets.

“When I first saw the gun, I was fascinated,” Klontsak said. “I understood this was the only way, if not to win this war, then to at least hold our positions.”

The gun is one of several that have emerged on the front lines using AI-trained software to automatically track and shoot targets. Not dissimilar to the object identification featured in surveillance cameras, software on a screen surrounds humans and other would-be targets with a digital box. All that’s left for the shooter to do is remotely pull the trigger with a video game controller.

Often, battlefield demands pull together engineers and soldiers. Oleksandr Yabchanka, a commander in Da Vinci Wolves, a battalion known for its innovation in weaponry, recalled how the need to defend the “road of life” — a route used to supply troops fighting Russians along the eastern front line in Bakhmut — had spurred invention. Imagining a solution, he posted an open request on Facebook for a computerized, remote-controlled machine gun.

In several months, Yabchanka had a working prototype from a firm called Roboneers. The gun was almost instantly helpful for his unit.

“We could sit in the trench drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and shoot at the Russians,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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