It's a debate that has gone on for a decade and more, largely unnoticed by the public. It's the ethical debate about robotic killing on the battlefield and just about anywhere else. Killing by automatons with the human element - conscience, afterthought, humanitarian instinct and intuition - removed from the equation.
Now three of the top names in science and technology - Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak and a thousand others - are warning of the outbreak of an artificial intelligence arms race, one that could become unstoppable.
In an open letter published Monday, the group calls for a ban on offensive autonomous weapons.
"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," the letter says.
It also warns of a potential black market, which could put AI weaponry in the hands of terrorists, dictators and warlords.
We have been conditioned to accept high-tech, supposedly "bloodless" war delivered via precision guided munitions since George H.W. Bush regaled the West with "shock and awe" warfare during Operation Desert Storm, the one-sided campaign to drive Saddam Hussein's forces out of Kuwait. Saddam's forces never had a chance. There was no one for them to hit back at.
Bush Sr.'s quick victory influenced his diminished-capacity son's subsequent adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq which achieved quick military victories followed by quagmire and ultimate defeat. Foreign Policy's Thomas Ricks let an American general sum up the Pentagon's folly:
The fact is that the American military, which truly has "all the king's horses and all the king's men" persistently fails to deliver meaningful results which leads to low intensity wars without any conclusive end that wind up abandoned when the folks at home get fed up and demand their soldiers be brought back.
It's the human factor that ends these wars. People don't want their kids on endless deployment for no apparent good end. The attraction of substituting automatons for live soldiers is obvious. You don't have to pay them, or feed them. They don't get pensions or life long medical care. Best of all, when they do kill somebody, chances are no one will ever be held accountable for it because the public probably will never be the wiser.
This being the 21st century, we'll probably never have that fundamental debate. Even truly serious issues these days almost never get any traction and, in the span of a week, whoosh - they're down the memory hole.
Hawking, Musk and Wozniak et al are right, though. An autonomous weapons arms race is inevitable. The US Navy is already field testing an autonomous submarine intended to prowl the seas in search of foreign subs and surface warships. All they're doing is militarizing autonomous underwater vehicle technology that has been in use in the civilian (scientifiec) sector for decades. The USN is expected to go into operational testing of underwater drones before the end of this year.
The vehicles - terrestrial, airborne, submarine - already exist. All that remains is to integrate onboard control systems allowing them to identify, track, target and attack humans - a piece of cake.