The Economist has a piece on this today. Here is an excerpt:
"On November 12th a video called “Slaughterbots” was uploaded to YouTube. It is the brainchild of Stuart Russell, a professor of artificial intelligence at the University of California, Berkeley, and was paid for by the Future of Life Institute (FLI), a group of concerned scientists and technologists that includes Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal.I was equally interested in the technology behind these miniature flying drones: they're cyclocopters.
It is set in a near-future in which small drones fitted with face-recognition systems and shaped explosive charges can be programmed to seek out and kill known individuals or classes of individuals (those wearing a particular uniform, for example). In one scene, the drones are shown collaborating with each other to gain entrance to a building. One acts as a petard, blasting through a wall to grant access to the others.
“Slaughterbots” is fiction. The question Dr Russell poses is, “how long will it remain so?” For military laboratories around the planet are busy developing small, autonomous robots for use in warfare, both conventional and unconventional. ..
The Pentagon is as alarmed by the prospect of freebooting killer robots as the FLI is. But, as someone said of nuclear weapons after the first one was detonated, the only secret worth keeping is now out: the damn things work. If swarms of small robots can be made to collaborate autonomously, someone, somewhere will do it."
"Cyclocopter aerodynamics is more like that of insects than of conventional aircraft, in that lift is generated by stirring the air into vortices rather than relying on its flow over aerofoils. For small cyclocopters this helps. Vortex effects become proportionately more powerful as an aircraft shrinks, but, in the case of conventional craft, including polycopters, that makes things worse, by decreasing stability. Cyclocopters get better as they get smaller. They are also quieter."
You have to see one to get an idea as to how they work. Here's a noisy prototype.
Professor Stuart Russell speaks at the end of the 'Slaughterbot' video, soberly calling for a moratorium on this kind of R&D. But he and his colleagues are plainly whistling in the wind: it's just too useful. Consider that we already have a primitive version of the slaughterbot: the sniper rifle.
We'll cope with this distant, aimed lethality by stringent regulation (outside of America), robust policing .. and a plentiful supply of drone-raptors.