What the ASX’s drone hunters think about Elon Musk and killer robots
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The two counter-drone companies on the ASX have different opinions on Elon Musk’s campaign against killer robots.
The Tesla boss launched a campaign to get the UN to ban autonomous weapons last week, warning that: “Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close.”
Mr Musk published an open letter that was signed by more than 100 technology and artificial intelligence experts and launched at the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Melbourne.
“Lethal autonomous weapons threaten to become the third revolution in warfare. Once developed, they will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend,” it said.
When you think about killer robots, you probably imagine something out of Terminator.
But it will more likely start with drones, which have already been used in war for years — and the question of whether or not they should be allowed to make their own decisions.
As the use of drones has increased, so has the demand to protect against them.
That’s where DroneShield (ASX:DRO) and Department 13 (ASX:D13) come in. Both are making counter-drone systems for the government and commercial sectors.
And it would seem they’re onto something big.
Department 13 recently launched its new counter-drone product, and said it had five buyers of the expensive $500,000 unit already.
DroneShield reported a 863 per cent increase in sales in its half yearly report on Friday — though admittedly it’s just getting started and was coming off a low base.
However when it comes to Mr Musk’s UN campaign, the bosses of the two companies have rather different opinions.
The pessimist and the optimist
Department 13 boss Jonathan Hunter said he admired Mr Musk, but he feared the campaign would not be very useful in the real world.
“I really value Elon Musk, he’s a very smart and capable guy,” he told Stockhead.
“[However] you can make all the statements to the UN — which is very nice, and I’m in full agreement with what they’re saying — but I think it’s foolish to think people aren’t doing it already.
“It’s going to go in in this direction no matter what Elon Musk wants.”
Mr Hunter directed Stockhead to a video on YouTube of what he said was a Syrian fighter with a non-State group who had built a remote-controlled machine gun with a PlayStation controller.
Instead of general pleas to the UN, Mr Hunter said it would be more effective to talk about which particular pieces of technology — such as sensors and radio equipment — should be put under prohibitions to prevent rogue soldiers from using them in autonomous robots.
The boss of DroneShield, however, was much more optimistic about a unified push to formally outlaw autonomous weapons.
“I agree with the thoughts on the regulation of autonomous weapons,” Oleg Vornik told Stockhead.
The world needed to set a standard, regardless of what rogue actors may do now or in the future, Mr Vornik said.
“I recall reading an article that was using exactly same argument — why ban something that people may develop illegally in the labs,” he said.
“However I think this is a flawed argument. For example we do not allow chemical and biological weapon deployments on battlefield, despite the fact that rogue agents can develop them on their own.
“Just because someone else can make and use unethical weapons, doesn’t mean we should do the same.”
Mr Vornik said he supported Mr Musk’s campaign to push the UN to formalise a stance on the subject.
“I think Mr Musk’s approach is the correct one, and generally speaking, lobbying for regulations on federal and international levels and publicly fostering discussion on the subject is the way to go.”
DroneShield has a market cap of about $32 million, and is trading at 22c.
Department 13’s market cap is about $52 million, and its shares are trading just under 10c.