This week’s future is a social experiment. What if Earth had a robotic overlord who decided to ban all weapons? All fights would have to be hand to hand. Would there be less death that way? Less casualties? What counts as a weapon anyway? Listen to the episode to find out!

To work through what would happen if we banned weapons I talked to Brad Allenby, a professor of engineering and ethics at Arizona State university. He pointed out how hard it would be for this to happen, not just from a practical standpoint of actually finding and destroying all the weapons on earth, but from a definitional standpoint too. What do you consider a weapon? Sure, guns and tanks are weapons. But what about prosthetic devices, or computer viruses, or physical structures?



Yes, it’s ridiculous to think that the entire world would come to a consensus on anything, particularly a consensus that includes eliminating every single weapon on the planet. But the underlying questions about ethics and weaponry that we get into this week, are questions that philosophers and politicians are tackling all the time.

One of the big questions people are asking about modern warfare, and its use of things like drones and robots, is whether it’s okay for a non-human entity to make a decision that kills someone. Basically we’re asking how close a human hand should be to the trigger. In this week’s scenario, we imagine what would happen if the human hand actually was the weapon. But right now, culturally and technologically, we’re kind of swinging the other way. And people are starting to wonder if that’s a good idea.

There’s a whole Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which has partnered with Human Rights Watch to put out several reports on the current state of autonomous weapons. One robotics company, Clearpath Robotics, vowed last year to never create a killer robot. And the United Nations held an expert meeting on the question of autonomous weapons systems in April. Patrick Lin, the director of the Ethics + Emerging Science Group at California Polytechnic State University, recently tackled the question of whether killer robots violate human rights.


What else might happen if we were to ban weapons? Which countries would rise to power, and which would fall? Would you join the military? Let us know in the comments, or on Twitter where we’re @MeanwhileFuture.

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See you next week for another field trip into the future!

Illustration by Jim Cooke