RobotRepublicGina-Smith-anewdomain — Ever heard of Stanislav Petrov? If not, you need to get up to speed. Petrov, you see, is the Russian who saved the world. He saved us on Sept. 26, 1983, just a few minutes after midnight in Moscow. The Soviet lieutenant colonel was the guy responsible for watching radar and alerting Soviet leadership in the case of a US military nuclear missile strike. His alert would of course be too late to save the USSR, but it would at least enable it to retaliate with a total, all-out nuclear counterattack against the US. That fall night in 1983 it happened: His computer alarms went off. A single American nuclear missile was on its way, the radar said. But Petrov hung back and disobeyed his standing orders to inform his superiors about it. It must be a computer error, he thought. The odds of the US sending just one missile seemed pretty slim.. But then the alarms went off again — and again — wailing louder and louder as his screen informed him that a second missile was on its way — and a third, fourth and fifth, too. His monitor flashed the Russian word for LAUNCH —  in tall, bright letters. The software was urgently telling Petrov that the USSR should quickly launch its massive counterstrike. The alarms grew deafening, but Petrov still sat there, unmoving. Stanislav Petrov the russian who saved the world robotrepublic responsible robotics noel sharkey jim hendlerShould he follow orders and call Soviet leadership, as protocol demanded? Or should he trust his gut? The stakes were huge, he knew. If he were wrong, U.S. missiles would wreak destruction on the USSR and all the things he held dear, without any counter at all. But what if he were right? Petrov did nothing. And in a few minutes, when the sky above was still quiet, clear and nuke-free, he knew he’d made the right decision. He’d bucked military orders and he feared he was going to have to answer for that, Petrov recalled to The Moscow News years later. But he’d saved the world from nuclear war. Through gut and intuition — and an unwillingness to question the technology in front of him — Petrov became the Russian who saved the world.

Could Petrov save the world in the age of AI?

The story of Petrov and his distrust of technology is a story that may well soothe readers now. But it makes some AI and robotics experts mighty anxious. They fear that today and in coming years, as humans put more and more trust in increasingly complex AI systems and robotic weapons, such a save becomes ever unlikely. “Petrov made his decision by taking into account the complex context around him. He was trained in a specific context — his machine and the lights,” says Jim Hendler, a Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professor of computer, web and cognitive sciences and author, with Alice Mulvehill, of Social Machines: The Coming Collision of Artificial Intelligence, Social Networking and Humanity. “But when things went down, he looked beyond that context and reasoned that it didn’t make sense. And he took appropriate action.” stanislav petrovThe question now, Hendler says, is what happens the next time this happens, and Petrov isn’t around. “My bigger worry,” explains Hendler, “has to do with AI getting smarter (because) at some point we’re going to remove Petrov from the loop.” Removing humans from key warfare decisions is already a topic of discussion around drone and cyber warfare, he added. The “issue is having someone, like a human, being somewhere in the loop before the missiles get launched,” he said.

Should technology be compliant with the rules of war? Can it be?