Arsenals of killer robots may soon be on Australia's doorstep as a new arms race ramps up in South-East Asia, a report warns.
The advanced military systems known as Lethal Autonomous Weapons (LAWS) can identify, target and kill a person. No human is needed to make the final decision to authorise lethal force. The final say about whether someone will live or die is left to the autonomous weapons system.
Australian Catholic University researcher Austin Wyatt said members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) are eyeing the autonomous weaponry.
Rather than a Terminator-like giant killing machine, the most common example of an autonomous weapon today are armed drones. They can fly over large areas and use facial recognition technology to search, identify and destroy enemy soldiers and installations – all on their own.
Singapore – which is currently using Artificial Intelligence for internal security - is particularly well placed to acquire the weapons, Mr Wyatt said.
But while adopting autonomous weapons may help middle-ranking military powers maintain their independence and remain neutral, they bring the risk of conflict between those countries.
They could also draw the US and China into regional conflicts.
"The major regional risk arising from the spread of autonomous weapons technology is the potential to exacerbate existing tensions, as current regional military modernisation is combined with an innovation that has been proclaimed by China, Russia, the UK and the United States as crucial to the future of warfare," Mr Wyatt said.
He warns the lack of an agreement controlling robotic weapons among ASEAN countries risks an "arms race".
"Without an effective control framework or greater efforts to establish mutual trust among ASEAN members, the adoption of autonomous weapon systems (or declared intention to do so) by a South-East Asian state would raise the security dilemma of its neighbours, creating a de-stabilising cycle of arms procurement if not a formal arms race."
So far, 26 countries have called for a pre-emptive ban on killer robots. Australia is not one of those nations. Last year the US, Russia, Australia, South Korea, Israel and others blocked progress towards an international treaty ban on fully autonomous weapons.
Mr Wyatt said Australia should not rely on an autonomous weapons ban.
Instead it should encourage its regional neighbours to internally regulate their use, control their spread to violent groups such as terrorists and concentrate on building up mutual trust between countries.