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Increasingly autonomous, gun-totting robots developed for warfare could easily fall into the hands of terrorists and may one day unleash a robot arms race, a top expert on artificial intelligence told AFP.0227 08

“They pose a threat to humanity,” said University of Sheffield professor Noel Sharkey ahead of a keynote address Wednesday before Britain’s Royal United Services Institute.

Intelligent machines deployed on battlefields around the world — from mobile grenade launchers to rocket-firing drones — can already identify and lock onto targets without human help.

There are more than 4,000 US military robots on the ground in Iraq, as well as unmanned aircraft that have clocked hundreds of thousands of flight hours.

The first three armed combat robots fitted with large-caliber machine guns deployed to Iraq last summer, manufactured by US arms maker Foster-Miller, proved so successful that 80 more are on order, said Sharkey.

But up to now, a human hand has always been required to push the button or pull the trigger.

It we are not careful, he said, that could change.

Military leaders “are quite clear that they want autonomous robots as soon as possible, because they are more cost-effective and give a risk-free war,” he said.

Several countries, led by the United States, have already invested heavily in robot warriors developed for use on the battlefield.

South Korea and Israel both deploy armed robot border guards, while China, India, Russia and Britain have all increased the use of military robots.

Washington plans to spend four billion dollars by 2010 on unmanned technology systems, with total spending expected rise to 24 billion, according to the Department of Defense’s Unmanned Systems Roadmap 2007-2032, released in December.

James Canton, an expert on technology innovation and CEO of the Institute for Global Futures, predicts that deployment within a decade of detachments that will include 150 soldiers and 2,000 robots.

The use of such devices by terrorists should be a serious concern, said Sharkey.

Captured robots would not be difficult to reverse engineer, and could easily replace suicide bombers as the weapon-of-choice. “I don’t know why that has not happened already,” he said.

But even more worrisome, he continued, is the subtle progression from the semi-autonomous military robots deployed today to fully independent killing machines.

“I have worked in artificial intelligence for decades, and the idea of a robot making decisions about human termination terrifies me,” Sharkey said.

Ronald Arkin of Georgia Institute of Technology, who has worked closely with the US military on robotics, agrees that the shift towards autonomy will be gradual.

But he is not convinced that robots don’t have a place on the front line.

“Robotics systems may have the potential to out-perform humans from a perspective of the laws of war and the rules of engagement,” he told a conference on technology in warfare at Stanford University last month.

The sensors of intelligent machines, he argued, may ultimately be better equipped to understand an environment and to process information. “And there are no emotions that can cloud judgement, such as anger,” he added.

Nor is there any inherent right to self-defence.

For now, however, there remain several barriers to the creation and deployment of Terminator-like killing machines.

Some are technical. Teaching a computer-driven machine — even an intelligent one — how to distinguish between civilians and combatants, or how to gauge a proportional response as mandated by the Geneva Conventions, is simply beyond the reach of artificial intelligence today.

But even if technical barriers are overcome, the prospect of armies increasingly dependent on remotely-controlled or autonomous robots raises a host of ethical issues that have barely been addressed.

Arkin points out that the US Department of Defense’s 230 billion dollar Future Combat Systems programme — the largest military contract in US history — provides for three classes of aerial and three land-based robotics systems.

“But nowhere is there any consideration of the ethical implications of the weaponisation of these systems,” he said.

For Sharkey, the best solution may be an outright ban on autonomous weapons systems. “We have to say where we want to draw the line and what we want to do — and then get an international agreement,” he said.

© 2008 Agence France Presse

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By Mayumi Negishi and Kentaro Hamada

TOKYO (Reuters) – Toshiba Corp (6502.T) is planning to give up on its HD DVD format for high definition DVDs, conceding defeat to the competing Blu-Ray technology backed by Sony Corp (6758.T), a company source said on Saturday.

The move will likely put an end to a battle that has gone on for several years between consortiums led by Toshiba and Sony vying to set the standard for the next-generation DVD and compatible video equipment.

The format war, often compared to the Betamax-VHS battle in the 1980s, has confused consumers unsure of which DVD or player to buy, slowing the development what is expected to be a multibillion dollar high definition DVD industry.

Toshiba’s cause has suffered several setbacks in recent weeks including Friday’s announcement by U.S. retailing giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT.N) that it would abandon the HD DVD format and only stock its shelves with Blu-ray movies.

A source at Toshiba confirmed an earlier report by public broadcaster NHK that it was getting ready to pull the plug.

“We have entered the final stage of planning to make our exit from the next generation DVD business,” said the source, who asked not to be identified. He added that an official announcement could come as early as next week.

No one answered the phone at Toshiba’s public relations office in Tokyo.

NHK said Toshiba would suffer losses running to tens of billions of yen (hundreds of millions of dollars) to scrap production of HD DVD players and recorders and other steps to withdraw from the business.

Hollywood studios had initially split their alliances between the two camps, meaning only certain films would play on any one DVD machine.

The balance of power tipped decisively toward the Sony camp in January after Time Warner Inc‘s (TWX.N) Warner Bros studio said it would only release high-definition DVDs in Blu-ray format. With that, studios behind some three-quarters of DVDs are backing Blu-ray, although some release in both formats.

Toshiba responded by slashing prices of HD DVD players, but the loss of retail support has hurt.

In addition to Wal-Mart, consumer electronics chain Best Buy Co Inc (BBY.N) and online video rental company Netflix Inc (NFLX.O) also recently signed up to the Blu-ray camp.

The exclusive backing of Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O) was also put in doubt when the software giant said in January that it could consider supporting Blu-ray technology for its Xbox 360 video game machine, which currently works only with HD DVD.

Sony has spent large sums of money to promote Blu-ray in tandem with its flat screen TVs and its PlayStation 3 game console, which can play Blu-ray movies.

The Toshiba source said the experience would not be a total loss for the sprawling conglomerate, whose products range from refrigerators to power plants, which would learn valuable lessons.

“Marketing was a weak point for Toshiba. We learned a lot from HD DVD. Strengthening marketing will continue to be an issue for us going forward,” the source said.

(Reporting by Mayumi Negishi, Kentaro Hamada and Nathan Layne, editing by Mike Peacock)

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MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) is seen in Richmond, B.C., in this undated photo. MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) is seen in Richmond, B.C., in this undated photo.
Paul Cottle, a former employee with B.C.-based company MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA), explains to CTV Newsnet why he felt he had to resign on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008.Paul Cottle, a former employee with B.C.-based company MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA), explains to CTV Newsnet why he felt he had to resign on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008.
Lloyd Axworthy is shown in this interview with BNN.Lloyd Axworthy is shown in this interview with BNN.

CTV.ca News

The Tories are under pressure to block the proposed sale of a division of Richmond, B.C.-based MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates — the maker of the Canadarm — to an American arms-maker.

Last week, MDA, a provider of essential information solutions, announced the sale of its Information Systems and Geospatial Services operations to Minnesota-based Alliant Techsystems (ATK) for $1.325 billion in cash.

On its website, ATK says its core businesses is conventional munitions and rocket motors and that it is building on that to become the “leading provider of advanced weapon and space systems.”

The sale is subject to MDA shareholder approval and regulatory approvals in Canada and the United States.

Paul Cottle, a 31-year-old American-born engineer, resigned from his job of three years at MDA after the company announced the sale. He had helped develop satellite technology for the company.

“I do not want to work for a company like ATK that manufactures weapons that kill civilians and soldiers indiscriminately,” Cottle told CTV’s Canada AM on Friday.

“That includes weapons such as cluster bombs, depleted uranium rounds, nuclear missiles and land mines.”

Cottle, citing Canada’s duties under 1997’s Mine Ban Treaty, wants Ottawa to block the sale.

“Despite the fact that the United States hasn’t signed the Mine Ban Treaty, Canada has, and the first article of the treaty states very explicitly that any country that signs the treaty cannot aid the production of mines that violate it,” Cottle told CTV Newsnet on Thursday.

“The fact that Canada would be allowing the sale of a company that was largely funded through Canadian tax dollars to a company that produces these landmines is a clear violation… of the treaty.”

MDA would not give an interview but released a statement, saying it will comply with any Canadian laws and the sale is in the best interest of its employees.

ATK said in a statement that it only provides NATO countries and other allies with treaty-compliant systems subject to US government approval.

However, ATK’s Spider land mine system is only deemed treaty compliant because it can be deactivated and self-destructed, said Cottle.

“First of all the shut-off switch is allowed a 5 per cent rate of failure and secondly, even if the shut-off switch does work, that still leaves about a half-pound of high explosives sitting out for someone to find,” said Cottle.

Additionally, Cottle said the mines can be operated in a “battlefield override switch,” a so-called “set-and-forget” mode.

Critics weigh in

Lloyd Axworthy, the former foreign affairs minister who signed the treaty during his tenure, said that the sale could potentially pose a problem for the Canadian government.

“If the manufacturer of this special landmine that the American company is involved in has already been condemned by the landmines monitor, then I think we’ve got a real problem,” he said.

“Especially if there’s a continuing of public dollars going into the company to support the space work, there’s a real association that takes place in that case.”

Axworthy said he was sure the treaty parties would investigate the sale and that if it’s approved Canada could end up “in a real political bind with some embarrassment to ourselves as a country.”

NDP industry critic Peggy Nash said Thursday that allowing the sale could make Canadian technology a factor in the arms race in space.

“This technology could potentially be part of the weaponization of space,” Nash told The Canadian Press. “There are serious concerns about where this technology is going.”

Bob Rae, the Liberal foreign affairs critic, highlighted that Canada has invested $430-million in the company’s Radarsat project.

“While the manufacture (of mines) would not necessarily be in Canada, we would still be in the position of subsidizing — through grants and other (technology) subsidies — a company that’s engaged in that business,” said Rae. “That’s something we have to think through very carefully.”

A spokesperson for Industry Minister Jim Prentice said the deal would be rigorously reviewed “to ensure there’s a net benefit to Canada.”

Deirdre McCracken also said that talk of reviewing Canada’s international treaty obligations were premature because the government hasn’t had time yet to review the deal.

“That’s the first time it’s been brought up,” said Deirdre McCracken. “We only heard about the proposed sale last Tuesday.”

With a report from CTV British Columbia’s Peter Grainger and files from The Canadian Press

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