The US Navy is developing an AI-controlled submarine that could kill autonomously without any human control.
This project is called CLAWS and is being led by the Office of Naval Research, which is responsible for the science and technology programs of the US Navy and Marine Corps.
Budget documents unveiled by New Scientist, describe CLAWS as an “autonomous unmanned undersea weapon system” that could be installed on robot submarines such as the Orca underseas vehicle developed by Boeing.
These submarines will be armed with 12 torpedo tubes that could be controlled by CLAWS without any human input.
“It will clandestinely extend the reach of large UUVs [unmanned underwater vehicles] and increase the mission areas into kinetic effects,” read the documents.
Prototype on its way
CLAWS was first revealed in 2018 as an attempt to “improve the autonomy and survivability of large and extra-large unmanned underwater vehicles.” However, there had been no mention of a weapons capability until now, according to New Scientist.
The documents also revealed that CLAWS has been allocated $26 million this year and another $23 million for 2021, which will be used to develop the CLAWS idea into a working prototype.
Stuart Russell, a professor of computer science at the University of California, who described CLAWS as a “dangerous development.”
“Equipping a fully autonomous vehicle with lethal weapons is a significant step, and one that risks an accidental escalation in a way that does not apply to sea mines,” he told New Scientist.
Lethal autonomous weapons on their way?
The US is not alone in working on autonomous submarines.
Chinese scientists expect to deploy unmanned military submarines in the world’s oceans by the early 2020s. Although the final decision on whether to attack will still be made by the officials — for now — the developments suggest that a new front in the AI arms race is being opened up at sea.
The rush to develop lethal AI-powered weapons is becoming a growing concern for activists such as the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which has attracted support from tech luminaries including Tesla’s Elon Musk and Alphabet’s Mustafa Suleyman.
They are backed by Germany’s Foreign Minister, Heiko Maasban, who has urged states “to ban fully autonomous weapons — before it is too late!”
The progress on CLAWS suggests this deadline may not be far away.