It may be too late to stop killer robots: they could already be among us. They don’t carry guns. They don’t blow things up. But fighting killer robots may be easier, and harder, than you think.

We are fast approaching a Terminator-style present-future, and Arnold Schwarzenegger is nowhere to be seen. Or rather, he’s doing his own thing and can’t be relied upon to save us. Are we all going to have to take up arms? Can you fire a bazooka?

“On Earth, a growing number of areas are reliably protected by anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, monitored by satellite and unmanned systems, and patrolled by ships and aircraft. In the minds of the military, only combat systems with AI will be able to, in the event of war, penetrate these closed areas and operate with relative freedom.”


Pop culture contains countless blueprints for how the need to stop killer robots could play out. If we consider it inevitable, the two questions are of when and what, specifically, we’ll be up against.

Horizon Zero Dawn (which may at some point be available on PC) suggests a future in which a virus infiltrates the AI systems of peacekeeping robots that subsist on biomass. They turn on their human overlords and consume them as fuel. The protagonist is a young girl, an outcast from a tribal village. Technological tidbits are all that remain from the past – our real-life present.

Image by Isolating the whens and whats

The question of when can be answered fairly easily. A future with killer robots in it may not be very far away. The what is scarily realistic, embedded as it is in real life political, economic and technological developments.

I, Robot inevitably springs to mind as an alternative. Here, the threat is not pseudo-military robots with viruses. Instead, it is domestic helper units mutating towards humanness. Like Horizon Zero Dawn, which places humanity’s self-destruction sometime within the next 100 years, I, Robot posits a near-future cataclysm. Proximity to the present is a common thread.

Should we watch out for military killer robots or domestic ones?

The more benign the appearance, the more insidious the potential. Military deployments are becoming ever rarer. The decades since WWII have seen less bloodshed than almost any 75-year period in modern history. While critics contest this simplistic conclusion, it is hard to imagine a major military conflict in the near future. There is just too much at stake.

As Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari points out in Sapiens, nation states are too interdependent for war to be worth waging. Out-and-out military battle is too expensive, and a deluge of sanctions – political and otherwise – awaits any leader who tries to invade a sovereign state in the 21st century.

On the other hand, distant programs and algorithms increasingly govern our behaviours – even those we consider personal. Corporations frequently collect data on individuals that we would likely find concerning. Algorithms monitor your every online activity.

The way you interact with social media can be used to manipulate that most inviolable right – the right to vote. The work of Cambridge Analytica and parent company SCL Elections reveals the disturbing power of domesticated, normalised robotics. Black Mirror is here already, you just don’t know it.

Image by The ultimate showdown

Depending on how you look at it, the sad (or relieving) fact is, you are unlikely to find yourself face to face with a robot whose express aim is to blow you up. The world of Hollywood films and mega-budget PlayStation 4 games is sensational, dramatic and personal for a reason. It’s fun. The real life alternative is likely to be far more mundane.

As the future arrives, and life is increasingly mediated by small electronic tablets, ask yourself this: could you survive without modern technology? Perhaps you are staring at a killer robot right now, and you don’t even know it. By distracting you from the immediacy of real life, these machines are effectively de-skilling us. In the wild, most modern humans would be useless.

Is the best defence a good offence?

It’s not necessarily time to throw away your device. But make sure, when the curtain falls, you, or your descendants, are prepared for survival in the real world. We each have a duty of care to ourselves, and our communities. When the quiche hits the fan, the ability to forage may just save your life – more so than great aim with a bazooka.

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