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While there are plenty of autonomous and semi-autonomous systems now in use, a projected new tank platform would represent the first use of autonomous weaponry by ground combat vehicles.

The US Army wants to build tanks controlled by artificial intelligence (AI). The ATLAS (Advanced Targeting and Lethality Automated System) will use artificial intelligence and machine learning to give ground-combat vehicles autonomous targeting capabilities. This will allow weapons to “acquire, identify, and engage targets at least 3X faster than the current manual process,” according to a notice by the Army Contracting Command.

ATLAS will use an algorithm to detect and identify targets and “parts of the fire control process” will be automated, explains the Army’s call for white papers. This means a person will always be the one actually making the decision to fire, as required by law, says Paul Scharre, director of the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, a bipartisan think tank in Washington, DC.

The system would ideally “maximize the amount of time for human response and allow the human operator to make a decision,” Scharre says. “And then once the human makes a decision, to fire accurately.” This can reduce the possibility of civilian casualties, fratricide, and other unintended consequences. It will also keep US soldiers safer on the battlefield, Scharre says.

The move raises concerns regarding the ability of fighting vehicles capable of firing autonomously. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a coalition of non-governmental organizations working to ban autonomous weapons and maintain “meaningful human control over the use of force,” cautions that letting machines select and attack targets could lead the world into “a destabilizing robotic arms race.”

More than 25 countries have called for a ban on autonomous weapons, a measure that explicitly requires human control when it comes to lethal force. However, the US, South Korea, Russia, Israel, and Australia have pushed back strongly a UN initiative, according to independent.co.uk, and defense contractors including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, and Raytheon continue to invest heavily in unmanned weapons development.

However, Scharre says the current crop of autonomous weaponry, such as ATLAS, is akin to blind-spot monitors on cars, which use lights in side-view mirrors blink to warn a driver not to change lanes. “It would ideally reduce the chances of missing targets, which is sort of good all around,” says Scharre.