Blair Miller

(Daily Montanan) A bipartisan group of Montana lawmakers wants to be sure no one in the state can use robots affixed with guns, swords or other weapons to kill people under a bill that was heard Friday that would establish the “Killer Robot Attack Ban Act.”

House Bill 594, sponsored by Rep. Kelly Kortum, D-Bozeman, aims to bar people and businesses from building, possessing, using or selling any “lethal autonomous weapon system” (LAWS) in Montana. It would subject anyone who violates the prohibition to up to 20 years in prison and a $50,000 fine.

The measure defines a lethal autonomous weapon system as one that “utilizes technological means to attack targets without further intervention by a human operator.”

“This is one of those proactive things that we can do to ensure all of our futures and our children’s futures,” Kortum said. “… I believe we as Montanans, we as Americans, and we as human beings really need to get ahead of this and prevent a disaster 10, 20 years in the future.”

Kortum started his presentation on the bill by discussing a 1979 presentation slide from computer manufacturer IBM that said, “A computer can never be held accountable; thus a computer must never make a management decision.”

He told the House Judiciary Committee that recent advances in autonomous drone, artificial intelligence and facial recognition technologies had made LAWS a reality in which a drone or robot could be outfitted with weapons like guns, blades and explosives and operate under its own computer artificial intelligence systems.

Kortum, a systems administrator, said those AI systems could be programmed to have the weapon systems target people through facial recognition, the body temperature of humans, or by a specific flag that soldiers might wear on their uniforms.

“This danger is no longer science fiction,” he said.

While law enforcement in Montana has started using drones for crash reconstructions, search-and-rescue operations and crime scene investigations over the past few years, it has not thus far tried to use any drones or robots affixed with weapons.

But police in Oakland, Calif., last year considered using robots affixed with shotguns. A San Francisco board of supervisors approved, then pulled, authorization for the police department to use robots affixed with bombs to kill people “as a deadly force option when risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers is imminent and outweighs any other force option available.”

In 2016, the Dallas Police Department strapped C-4 to a robot to kill a man who killed five police officers in a deadly rampage. Taser manufacturer Axon Enterprises pulled back on a plan last year to affix the weapons to drones after most of its artificial intelligence ethics board resigned over the proposal, Reuters reported.

Kortum said there was already evidence some foreign nations had used LAWS to hunt soldiers and commit what he called “war crimes.” He told the committee that if nations or people start to develop the systems as a common tool as they become cheaper to build, it would lead to an arms race that would threaten civilians, soldiers and law enforcement alike.

The Department of Defense first issued Directive 3000.09 in 2012 but updated it earlier this year. It says that any autonomous or semi-autonomous weapons used by the military must undergo strict testing and have commanders approve their use. The directive says they should only be designed “to allow commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of force.”

Maggie Bornstein with the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana testified in support of the bill, saying use of the weapon systems would constitute excessive force without due process and that they put bystanders at risk of being maimed or killed. She also noted that they could be liable to being hacked – “a concerning and troubling thought,” she said.

Tim McKenrick, who lost in his primary race in House District 75 last year and faces a felony charge for allegedly falsifying his signature on a local school board ballot, according to the Boulder Monitor, was the lone person to testify in opposition to the bill – on behalf of himself and the Montana Trappers Association.

He said the bill would outlaw mouse traps because they trigger themselves, as well as self-driving cars. But Kortum said he had checked with an autonomous vehicle company who said that was not the case, and that he didn’t believe it would apply to any traps, though he was happy to amend the bill to make that clear.

The bill’s cosponsors include lawmakers from both parties, though Reps. Jed and Caleb Hinkle, both Belgrade Republicans who sit on the House Judiciary Committee, removed themselves after the hearing Friday.

Kortum said the bill, on which the committee did not vote on Friday, was about getting ahead of the possibility the weapon systems could become a widely used reality as technology advances.

“Montana can lead on this issue,” he said. “We can ban the use and construction of killer robots and set an example to the nation and world.”