In the present day human societies are faced with a number of serious threats that endanger the very survival of life on planet Earth. These threats are as we know of different natures. The most serious ones are not due to natural phenomena: they are the result of the purposeful application of technological advances for the benefit of a few serving the interests of certain powerful corporations or clusters thereof. One such cluster is the so called military industrial complex.

In this context it is appropriate to quote Dr. John Chipman, Director-General and Chief Executive of The International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, on the occasion of the press release of the report “The Military Balance 2016[i]: “Access to military-relevant high technologies is growing and this levelling of the technological playing field presents governments with a challenge not just to keep pace with the latest technology and monitor its proliferation but also cope with the blurred boundaries between civil and military technologies and offensive and defensive military systems”. “Western military technological superiority, a core assumption of the past two decades, is eroding”, Dr. Chipman added. These remarks remained at least as valid as they were when the press release of the following edition of the Report took place on February 14, 2017. As far as the balance of military power is concerned, it is worth noting that Paul Craig Roberts, a distinguished economist, chairman of The Institute for Political Economy, former Wall Street Journal editor, and Assistant Secretary of the US Treasury under President Ronald Reagan, has recently expressed the opinion that “the US military is now second class compared to the Russian military[ii].

Illiteracy as the condition or quality of being ignorant or unknowledgeable in a particular subject can represent a serious handicap. When the person or persons concerned are rulers or powerbrokers, social, cultural and scientific illiteracy may become a threat to society. The negation of climate change or of Darwin’s theory of Evolution, are special cases of science denial, as is the convincement that a nuclear war can be won. This has ― to be sure ― nothing to do with science itself but brings to the forefront the need to invest heavily on a consciousness-raising crusade against a number of misconceptions that are rooted in the minds of a large number of our fellow citizens.

This is, needless to say, a formidable task and one that cannot be successful without a serious engagement of socially responsible scientific workers.


This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Doomsday Clock, a graphic that appeared on the first cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Ever since, the Doomsday Clock, as it came to be called, has served as a globally recognized arbiter of the planet’s health and safety.In January 26 of this year the Clock has been advanced. It is now 30 seconds closer to midnight. The clocks hands had shown 3 minutes to midnight since January 2015.[iii]The position of the clock’s hands reflects the evaluation of today’s existential threats to humanity posed by nuclear weapons and climate change, taking as well into consideration potential threats from emerging technologies among which lethal autonomous weapons systems that make “kill” decisions without human input or supervision are a particularly serious one.

After a brief exposé of the world’s defense expenditure, the present article addresses current technological developments as well as policy trends and strategical thinking associated with Nuclear Weapons. The subsequent chapters are dedicated to the promise and threats of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics applications with special consideration of autonomous weapons and weapon systems.


According to SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the total world military expenditure rose to $1686 billion [iv] in 2016 (at constant 2015 US$). Since the year 2000 there has been an increase of 60% in the total world military expenditures. SIPRI’s data shows that in 2016 expenditure has increased in the USA and Europe (mainly Eastern Europe) and decreased in oil-exporting countries, particularly in Saudi Arabia. According to the latest figures published by SIPRI[v], the United States remains the country with the highest annual military expenditure in the world. The People’s Republic of China comes second with one third of the US military expenditure. It is followed by the Russian Federation that in 2015 occupied the fourth position while Saudi Arabia came third. The positions are now inverted. Russia and Saudi Arabia military expenditures are very close at respectively, $69 and $64 billion. The fifth largest spender is India with $56 billion.

There is not uniformity in the criteria used to evaluate military expenditures.

In a recent article, Kimberly Amadeo, a specialist in economic analysis and business strategy, estimates the U.S. military budget for Fiscal Year 2018 at $824.6 billion. This includes the base budget request for the Department of Defense, proper, but not other items. In the words of Amadeo, “Ironically, the DoD base budget does not include the cost of wars”. These fall under the so-called Overseas Contingency Operations, budgeted at US$77 billion[vi]. In the amount cited above,other items as well are not considered.

It is also worth noting that according to several sources the United States Department of Defense continues to be the only unauditable federal Department. As the British newspaper Guardian points out, “although it’s required to by law, the DoD has never had an audit, (…) something every company and every other government agency is subject to. The result is an astounding $10 trillion in taxpayer money that has gone unaccounted for since 1996 [vii]


Nuclear war is arguably the most serious of the various threats presently facing the world.

As of mid-2017, roughly, 10000 nuclear weapons are in military arsenals. Of these approximately 4000 are operationally available, some 2000 are on high alert and ready for use on short notice. The total yield or explosive power of the weapons in this last category amounts to about 1 thousand Mt of TNT equivalent.[viii]The Russian Federation and the United States of America possess about 90% of the global inventory of these weapons.[ix]

Article VI of the Treaty of Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons that both states have ratified, represents to date the only binding commitment in a multilateral treaty to the goal of disarmament by the nuclear-weapon states[x]. It is apparent that neither of the signatory states, including the two major nuclear powers, have taken any steps in that direction. As for the USA an ambitious program directed towards the modernization of the country’s nuclear forces was launched and is under way. The program includes beyond the nuclear explosives per se the several components of the so-called “nuclear triad”, that is, the three components of a strategic nuclear arsenal capable of delivering the nuclear warheads to the chosen targets. The “triad” components are land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), strategic bombers, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The modernization program was set in motion by Barak Obama a few years after his famous Prague address of April 2009[xi]. He said then: “(…) as a nuclear power – as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon – the United States has a moral responsibility to act “. He further stressed “(…) America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons”. Also affirming that “(…) the United States will take concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons”.


It was in fact, President Barack Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate of 2009, that set in motion plans to undertake a massive and costly rebuild of the arsenal. According to an analysis of the US government budget data carried out by the Arms Control Association[xii] the total cost of nuclear forces from fiscal year 2018 to 2047 is estimated at between $1.25 trillion and $1.46 trillion in then-year dollars, (price increases due to inflation over the 30-year period included). It is believed that much of this effort is still in its infancy, and would in fact take decades to complete assuming no major changes take place in the geo-political stage, hopefully in favor of peace. In August of this year, President Donald Trump reiterated the commitment to pursue the policy set by his predecessor by claiming in a press briefing that his “first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal”. He added that that arsenal “(…) is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before”, an assertion that appears however to have little resemblance to the truth.

A Submarine-launched Trident Balistic Missile emerging from the sea

Trump inherited the “nuclear modernization program” program, and “(…) proposes to move full steam ahead with the Obama approach. This is not surprising, given that the (present) administration has yet to put its own stamp on U.S. nuclear policy[xiii].

The “atomic revitalization program” has been portrayed to the public as an effort to ensure the reliability and safety of warheads in the US nuclear arsenal, rather than to enhance their military capabilities. In reality, the program has led to the development and testing of “smarter” atom bombs of great precision, smaller and stealthier, thus dangerously lowering the so-called “nuclear threshold”, that is, the circumstances under which some may consider “acceptable” to employ nuclear weapons in a possible battlefield or even against non-military targets. This “build-it-smaller” approach” echoes favorably in high political and military circles in the USA who “think about the unthinkable”. The consideration of a preemptive nuclear strike at a supposed enemy power is tied to the belief that a nuclear war can be won.

As a result of the work carried out in the framework of the program, the targeting capability of the US ballistic missile arsenal and, as a consequence, their overall killing power is boosted by a factor of roughly three creating “exactly what one wouldexpect to see, if a nuclear-armed state were planning to have the capacity to fight and win a nuclear war by disarming enemies with a surprise first strike.”[xiv]



Waging war against a presumed enemy assumes in our day a wealth of forms mostly beyond the comprehension of the common man or woman. Hence their consequences both in the short and the long term are poorly or not at all understood in their entirety.

Autonomous weapons often referred to as killer robots are a prominent component of new technologically advanced weapons. They are not included in the so-called United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCWC). At the present time the number of states party to the Convention is 124. The Convention that entered into force in December 1983, “seeks to prohibit or restrict the use of certain conventional weapons which are considered excessively injurious or whose effects are indiscriminate[xv]. The weapons covered in the Convention are landmines, booby traps, incendiary weapons and blinding laser weapons.

The Convention also establishes a responsibility on parties that have used explosive weapons to assist with the clearance of unexploded ordnance that this use has created.

In recent years certain bodies as well as individuals with expert knowledge have raised the question of the prohibition or ban of the use of robots for military purposes, autonomous weapons being the main concern. At the Fifth Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons, that took place in Geneva in December 2016, the representatives of 123 member states party to the Convention unanimously agreed to begin formal discussions on autonomous weapons. Of these, 19 have called for an outright ban.

The Conference decided to establish an open-ended Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) related to emerging technologies on lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) in 2017.The first work session of the Group that was due to take place in August 21 was postponed until November last[xvi]. It is worth noting that the Group’s meeting is open to all High Contracting Parties and non-States parties, international organizations and non-governmental organizations.

Last August leaders from artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics companies around the world have released an open letter calling on the United Nations to ban autonomous weapons. The letter relayed by “The Future of Life Institute[xvii] was addressed to the representatives of the 124 states party to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons on the eve of the meeting of the parties convened to take place on August 21, 2017.

This is the first time that AI and robotics companies have taken a joint stance on the issue. The letter signed by 116 founders of robotics and artificial intelligence companies from 26 countries urges the United Nations to urgently address the challenge of lethal autonomous weapons and ban their use internationally.

In the opinion of the signatories (quote) “lethal autonomous weapons threaten to become the third revolution in warfare (…). Once developed, they will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend”. Adding that (quote) “we do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s Box is opened, it will be hard to close” thus justifying the urgent appeal to the United Nations.

Moreover, two years ago, at IJCAI 2015[xviii], more than 1000 AI researchers had released an open letter calling for a ban on lethal autonomous weapons. To date, the open letter has been signed by 3462 AI/Robotics researchers and18909 others[xix].

It is of interest to briefly characterize what is normally understood under the term Artificial intelligence . A possible satisfactory definition reads as follows: “the ability of a digital computer or computer-controlled robot to perform tasks commonly associated with intelligent beings”. The term is frequently applied to the project of developing systems endowed with the intellectual processes characteristic of humans, such as the ability to reason, discover meaning, generalize, or learn from past experience[xx]. Self-learning algorithms are a corner stone of AI.

Similarly to what is observed in relation to other technological advances one must be on the alert for applications that are contrary to the interests of society and principally of world peace and human rights.

There can be little doubt as to the rate at which AI and related branches of science and technology will continue to progress. We should not underestimate the reasons behind the statement that “the future is now” that can be heard from different parties. Socially responsible scientific workers have the obligation to be on alert and be prepared to act for the good of society using whatever means are at their reach.

In certain political circles awareness of what is at stake has come to light on different occasions while in others sheer ignorance appears to reign.

There are however considerable differences of opinion among knowledgeable elites be it in the political sphere or in the AI community itself as to the impact on human societies of the spread of AI related applications.

A remarkable illustration of the above referred state of things, is the event diffused by the media according to which this year on September 1st, named “Knowledge Day” ― the opening day of the school year in the Russian Federation ― President Vladimir Putin speaking with students about science in an open lesson, told them that “the future belongs to artificial intelligence”, adding that “artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind. It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world”. This bold statement was mitigated by adding that he would not like to see anyone “monopolize” the field, and that “if (Russia) become leaders in this area, we will share this know-how with the entire world, the same way we share our nuclear technologies today[xxi].

In the USA, giant technological firms like Google or Facebook are investing heavily in AI Research and Development (R&D), as well as the military, mainly the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), nick-named by some as “the brains of the Pentagon”.

In a remarkable article published in the National Geographic Magazine, the author,D.T. Max, points out that “like other species, we are the products of millions of years of adaptation”. “Now ― he adds ―we’re taking matters into our own hands[xxii].

A very sensitive development that is being pursued is the possibility to command the behavior and even alter the personality of a human being by the brain implant of tiny electronic circuits known as “chips”. Once again, the underlying technology can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, enabling the person to recover lost or missing physical or mental abilities including birth related defects (moving a paralyzed limb, recovering sight or hearing, treating memory loss or other symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s disease).On the other hand, fostering superhuman sensory and cognitive developments in the sense that they give the “modified” human being aptitudes that the normal person does not possess. Some experts highlight among these new skills the extension of the perception of images into the range of infrared and ultraviolet radiation. But also the brain’s memory capacity and the ability to communicate with others by telepathic transmission of thought. The brain implant would also allow secure and permanent access to information where and when needed.

According to the above cited source, in the USA “Defense Department money, through the military’s research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), funds much of this development”.

One instance of this policy trend mentioned by D.T. Max is that of a laboratory at the University of Southern California’s Center for Neural Engineering that is testing chip implants in the brain to recover lost memories. The author also refers that “last year, at the University of Pittsburgh, a subject was able to transmit electrical impulses from his brain, via a computer, to control a robotic arm and even sense what its fingers were touching”. Such achievements are promising for the cure or alleviation of human suffering. One should however be aware of the risks involved in computer-brain interaction applications. As D.T. Max points out, the view that “connecting the human brain to a machine would produce a matchless fighter has not been lost on DARPA”.

Quoting Annie Jacobsen[xxiii], he adds that “Everything there is dual purpose (…) you have to remember DARPA’s job isn’t to help people. It’s to create vast weapon systems of the future’.

In 1998, Ellen M. McGee and G. Q. Maguire, Jr., presented at the 20th World Conference of Philosophy, an important essay on “Ethical Assessment of Implantable Brain Chips[xxiv].

The authors consider that (quote): “The most frightening implication of this technology is the grave possibility that it would facilitate totalitarian control of humans”.

They question, particularly, the consequences of an eventual transplant of the chip-implant from a person’s brain into the brain of another person. Will it “be possible to capture data presenting all of a human being’s sensory experiences on a single tiny chip implanted in the brain?”. In the eventuality a memory chip is transplanted from one brain to another, psychological continuity of personal identity would be disrupted with indisputable ramifications. “Would the resulting person have the identities of other persons?” ― the authors ask.

These are very serious questions concerning applied ethics and moral standards. They require informed inclusive social dialog and debate.Scientific workers are called upon to play the unique role that can be theirs in this debate.

This said it is important to underline the fact that in all technologically advanced states the contribution of scientific workers has always been and is today of paramount importance for the progress of R&D work oriented directly or indirectly towards military applications. One could say that Science and Technology is largely “weaponized” or that a considerable number of scientists and technicians are “stooges”of the military.

Stuart Parkinson from “Scientists for Global Responsibility”, an independent non-for-profit, British association, and his colleagues, have extensively discussed the subject of the militarization of science. “Soldiers in the Laboratory” is one of their most remarkable publications[xxv]. The title mirrors the growing trend among the military industrial complex to subcontract university groups mainly in the private sector, in the UK. The same happens elsewhere.

The authors point out that efforts to further embed military R&D in the universities are proceeding rapidly, despite the lack of discussion within the scientific and technological communities. This trend does not only compromises academic freedom but effectively diverts funding from civilian applications

As universities are pushed into developing closer ties with the military and acting more like commercial entities with more resources devoted to projects with financial aims, dissenting voices inside the scientific community are marginalized, academic staff feel vulnerable and sources of independent critique are limited.


The question of the liability of autonomous systems, particularly of lethal autonomous weapons, is a matter of concern and not only for scientific workers and specialists, but one of public concern.

The Russian Kalashnikov arms manufacturer has developed a fully automated combat module based on artificial neural networks, which allows it to identify targets, learn and make decisions on its own. 
© Kalashnikov Group

Tucker Davey deals with this question in an article entitled “Who is Responsible for Autonomous Weapons?[xxvi]

In the case of a self-driving car although fatal accidents can happen the car’s manufacturer is supposed to adopt every possible technological solution to keep accidents from happening. Even in this case the question of ascertaining responsibilities may rise complex questions in the framework of a legal system. When dealing with autonomous weapons furthering the attainable degree of lethality is the commanding guideline of the manufacturer.

Autonomous military robots ― the author points out ― “can navigate environments on their own and make their own decisions about who to kill and who to spare.” This fact raises “important questions that governments and researchers must jointly consider (…)”, namely: “How do we hold human beings accountable for the actions of autonomous systems? And how is justice served when the killer is essentially a computer?. “As it turns out, there is no straightforward answer to this dilemma” ― Davey adds.


From the point of view of warmongers substituting humanoid robots for human soldiers in a battlefield has significant advantages. On one side the humanoid robotic fighter capabilities may surpass those of the human soldier; on the other side leaders will be done with the home transport of bodybags and burial ceremonies in the presence of mourning family and friends.


The design and production of Atlas, an advanced humanoid robot, was overseen by DARPA, an agency of the United States Department of Defense, in cooperation with Boston Dynamics. File licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

 As in the case mentioned before of the development of miniaturized nuclear warheads,it is appropriate to note that the possibility of deploying robot soldiers in the battlefield may lead to a lowered threshold for going to war.

When talking of lethal autonomous weapons one should mention that besides the mobile robotic weapons, including humanoid robots, the major military powers are investing as well in heavier combat modules with self-decision capabilities.

The Russian Kalashnikov arms manufacturer has recently made public the development of a fully automated combat module based on artificial neural networks. According to a press release: “Neural network technologies allow the module to identify targets and make decisions on its own”. “It remains unclear whether the module will actually open fire on its own or wait for a human to authorize it” ― it adds”[xxviii].

To conclude the above considerations on the threats associated with the military applications of Artificial Intelligence it is appropriate to quote the following passage of the 2015 Open Letter undersigned by AI & Robotics Researchers, already cited:

The key question for humanity today is whether to start a global AI arms race or to prevent it from starting. If any major military power pushes ahead with AI weapon development, a global arms race is virtually inevitable, and the endpoint of this technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow. Unlike nuclear weapons, they require no costly or hard-to-obtain raw materials, so they will become ubiquitous and cheap for all significant military powers to mass-produce[xxix].


Frederico Carvalho

December 3, 2017

The present article is a contribution to the proceedings of the meeting of the World Federation of Scientific Workers Working Group 1 (International Disarmament and Cooperation) meeting in Dakar, Senegal, on December 5, 2017


[i]“The Military Balance 2016”,IISS-The International Institute for Strategic Studies, Press Release, February 9, 2016. See 2017 Report at

[ii]Paul Craig Roberts, “One Day Tomorrow Won’t Arrive”, October 28, 2017,(

[iii]The decision on whether the clock hands shall be moved is the responsibility of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board comprised of “a select group of globally recognized leaders with a specific focus on nuclear risk, climate change and emerging technologies”.

[iv]That is about 1.7 times 1012 US Dollars

[v]“World military spending: Increases in the USA and Europe, decreases in oil-exporting countries”, The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, April 24, 2017

[vi]Kimberly Amadeo, “U.S. Military Budget: Components, Challenges, Growth”, The Balance, Updated August 10,2017 ( )

[vii]Thomas Hedges, “The Pentagon has never been audited. That’s astonishing”, The Guardian, March 20, 2017 ( )

[viii]During World War II the total explosive power of every bomb detonated was equivalent to 3 MT of TNT, a number that corresponds to the total explosive power of 10 average size strategic nuclear weapons.

[ix]Kristensen,H. M., andR. S.Norris.2013. “Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories, 1945-2013.”Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists”, 69, 7581.

[x]ARTICLE VI of the Treaty reads: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

[xi]Obama Prague Speech On Nuclear Weapons: FULL TEXT”, Huffington Post, 05/06/2009 05:12 am ET, Updated May 25, 2011 (

[xii]“The Trillion (and a Half) Dollar Triad?”Arms Control Association, Issue Brief, Volume 9, Issue 6, August 18, 2017 . The Arms Control Association is a United States-based nonpartisan membership organization founded in 1971 (

[xiii]Cf. endnote 12.

[xiv]“How US nuclear force modernization is undermining strategic stability: The burst-height compensating super-fuze”, Hans M. Kristensen, Matthew McKinzie, Theodore A. Postol, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists-ANALYSIS, March 1, 2017 ( ). Technical details on the “super-fuze” can be found in this reference.

[xvi]There is no notice of the Proceedings of the meeting.

[xvii]The Future of Life Institute” is a volunteer-run research and outreach organization in the Boston area that works to mitigate existential risks facing humanity, particularly existential risk from advanced artificial intelligence (Wikipedia).Nonprofit organizationfounded March 2014. Location:Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

[xviii]24thInternational Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence, Buenos Aires, July 2015

[xix]Autonomous Weapons: An Open Letter From AI &Robotics Researchers”, July 2015, (

[xxi]“Whoever leads in AI will rule the world’: Putin to Russian children on Knowledge Day”,September 1, 2017(

[xxii]D.T. Max, “How Humans Are Shaping Our Own Evolution”, National Geographic, April 2017

[xxiii]Annie Jacobsen is an American investigative journalist, author and 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist in history. She authored the book “The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top-Secret Military Research Agency”, Published September 22nd 2015 by Little, Brown and Company

[xxiv]See “The Proceedings of the Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy”, Boston, Massachusetts, August 10-16, 1998

[xxv]Chris Langley, “Soldiers in the Laboratory ― Military involvement in science and technology – and some alternatives” Editors : Stuart Parkinson and Philip Webber, January 2005

Chris Langley, Stuart Parkinson, Philip Webber,More Soldiers in the Laboratory. The militarisation of science and technology – an update”, August 2007 (

[xxvi]Tucker Davey, “Who is Responsible for Autonomous Weapons?”, November 21, 2016(

[xxvii]Some analysts consider as well the labor market impact of the extensive usage of AI algorithm’ controlled robots, a trend that might be described as “getting rid of the human worker” in the economy.

[xxix] Cf. Reference 18