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Pentagon says killer robots have no place in US military

Bertrand Guay | AFP | Getty Images

Hollywood may depict the next-generation battlefield as having fully autonomous killer robots but Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said the U.S. military has no plans to ever use them.

Carter, who this week made a trip to the tech cities of San Francisco and Austin, has been an advocate of high-tech weapon systems as a way to counter the growing military threat posed by Russia and China. These include cyber and smart weapon systems that use artificial intelligence.

"Whenever it comes to the application of force, there will never be true autonomy, because there'll be human beings (to make decisions)," the DoD Secretary told reporters traveling with him during the trip, BreakingDefense.com reported.

CNBC reached out to the Pentagon for comment but didn't hear back at deadline.

The Pentagon's advisory committee known as the Defense Science Board released a report on autonomy in June, concluding there are real benefits to having it. The report highlighted areas where the military can automate and use autonomy that are not necessarily targeting and firing a weapon.

"Autonomous capabilities are increasingly ubiquitous and are readily available to allies and adversaries alike," the autonomy report stated. "DoD must take immediate action to accelerate its exploitation of autonomy while also preparing to counter autonomy employed by adversaries."

A United Nations conference last fall concluded artificial intelligence raises ethical and legal questions when it comes to autonomous weapons, and some attendees suggested the need for an international treaty that would prohibit the use of fully autonomous killer robots in warfare.

In July, the Dallas Police Department utilized a robot to kill a shooting suspect. While the robot was under the control of humans, the event still raised concerns and also renewed the debate over whether killer robots should have a place in the future of warfare.

"What you still want is humans to designate the target in advance and ensure they are legal and lawful targets before the system is deployed," said Peter Asaro, a philosopher who studies artificial intelligence and is co-founder of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control.

Meantime, while in Austin the Defense Secretary announced the Pentagon will establish a new Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUx facility, in the Texas tech city. The DoD already has similar DIUx offices in Silicon Valley and Boston.

"I created DIUx last year because one of my core goals as Secretary of Defense has been to build, and in some cases rebuild, the bridges between our national security endeavors at the Pentagon and America's wonderfully innovative and open technology community," said Carter.

In a press release, DoD said "DIUx is tackling some of our nation's toughest defense challenges and the team is seeking solutions in a variety of technological areas — from autonomy, artificial intelligence and machine learning to cybersecurity and analytics."

DIUx operates on a co-investment model in which it pools funds with the military end-users it works with. According to the DoD, for each $1 DIUx invests in innovative technology, other parts of the department are investing nearly $3.

To date, the Pentagon has signed five agreements for $3.5 million. It said this week another 22 projects are in the pipeline, totaling an additional $65 million.