As the reports I have linked below refer to military machines, namely robots, drones, and the like, these are what I mean by autonomous machine. These military machines have, to my knowledge up to now, to be controlled by a military operative, whether in the country the machine is in, or remotely via satellite in another country. These reports suggest no operative is controlling these machines and the machines themselves are determining whether the person is an enemy or ally, breaking all three of Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics.

The magazine, New Scientist reported that:

Military drones may have autonomously attacked humans for the first time ever last year, according to a United Nations report. While the full details of the incident, which took place in Libya, haven’t been released and it is unclear if there were any casualties, the event suggests that international efforts to ban lethal autonomous weapons before they are used may already be too late.

Looking at the idea, apparently, it comes from a 548-page report from the United Nations Security Council that details the tail end of the Second Libyan Civil War.

Logistics convoys and retreating HAF were subsequently hunted down and remotely engaged by the unmanned combat aerial vehicles or the lethal autonomous weapons systems such as the STM Kargu-2 (see annex 30) and other loitering munitions. The lethal autonomous weapons systems were programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true “fire, forget and find” capability.

The Verve who provided this quote, states

What the report doesn’t say — at least not outright — is that human beings were killed by autonomous robots acting without human supervision. It says humans and vehicles were attacked by a mix of drones, quadcopters, and “loitering munitions” (we’ll get to those later), and that the quadcopters had been programmed to work offline. But whether the attacks took place without connectivity is unclear.

Nevertheless, a number of publications including CNET have been reporting that

Libyan forces were "hunted down and remotely engaged" by an autonomous drone

So, have autonomous machines distinguished enemies from allies, and killed them without human supervision?

In response to comments made, I would hope for (if possible) a well documented case that either

  • a) a weapon system targeted a person and that the on-board discrimination capabilities were engaged or
  • b) (if a) is not possible) that it is feasible and very possible that what is reported has actually happened
  • 6
    I assume you do not intend to include self-driving cars in the question?
    – GEdgar
    Commented Jun 14, 2021 at 12:23
  • 20
    Isn't a landmine also an "autonomous machine"? It can't move, but its programming can decide to explode when a human is near. And landmines killed and injured plenty of humans without supervision.
    – Philipp
    Commented Jun 14, 2021 at 13:02
  • 8
    This is degenerating into quibbles about definitions. Is a landmine a "fire, forget and find" autonomous machine, that doesn't require data connectivity? Does finding such ambiguities in the definitions help anyone at all?
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Jun 15, 2021 at 11:57
  • 4
    Land mines are pretty simplistic, but how about captor mines? They sit there in the ocean until they hear the target they're programmed for and fire a torpedo at it. There are also anti-radiation missiles that can be told to hover over an area and attack any transmitter they find, but I don't know if they have ever been fired in anger. Commented Jun 16, 2021 at 3:07
  • 6
    And, to agree with @forest, a good chunk of Asimov's work is about how the three laws weren't absolute, or caused problems of various sorts, or were subverted in one manner or another. They are a narrative device for driving the story. Including them here is a red herring. Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 4:28

2 Answers 2


Yes. As early as the Falkland War, though this is eminently dependent on the definition of 'autonomous', 'machines' and 'supervision'.

'Fire and forget' munitions have existed for quite some time, and have already killed people, e.g. the Exocet system, where the user designates a location and target type (outside of the user's optical field of view), and launches the weapon. It then arrives at the designated location, and 'chooses' it's final destination by active radar scanning. Thus, the user needs only a hazy idea of the target ('ship at or around coordinates xy') and the weapon will do the rest. Should more than one ship be at approximately that position, one is 'chosen' by the weapon.

The user of Exocet thus currently has to will anybody on a ship around coordinates xy to die, and Exocet will then target a specific part of a specific ship, and make them die. There is no supervision in the final approach - the user might opt to self-destruct the Exocet, but that would not be based on communications from the missile itself.

Some distinctions:

  • Shooting an iron-sight gun at a perceived threat might be the baseline of killing at a distance - here the user triggers a machine mechanically, using their own senses for information, and their own mind for the decision about the parameters of the hostility. Friendly fire / civilian victims (ff/cv) under these circumstances is widespread, and the target, even if a member of an opposing military force, is mostly unknown to the user. Even firing on 'targets' that are not line of sight is possible (and done) using the parabolic flight path of the projectile.
  • Shooting a gun by aiming through a digital night vision scope extends this scenario by introducing sensory input produced by a machine - the effects of this might be non-trivial
  • Shooting a weapon that launches missiles that have some sort of self-arming mechanism related to some quality of the target (i.e. not only self-arming after a set time, but rather self-arming in response to e.g. a distance-to-target measurement) introduces another variable. The weapon may receive this input by error (i.e. not in the vicinity of the intended target), and there is no supervision in where it actually explodes. This is Exocet.
  • Arming a weapon that will fire at a later moment, this moment being determined by a sensory input to the weapon, is another step, common to many area-denial systems.

The act of launching 'Drones' that loiter over a prescribed area, for a prescribed time, and attack a type of target without further intervention, could either be viewed as a drawn-out version of the principle that Exocet represents, or of making mines location-variable and shorter lived, so it would, to my mind, only represent a change in quantity, not quality, of characteristics of existing weapons.

From the perspective of the victim: Staying at an unknown (to the enemy) location and not moving have, up to now, not guaranteed survival (carpet bombing, poison gas, nuclear weapons). Moving undetected by humans from one location to the other added the threat of mines (land- or sea-)(You may notice that all the aforementioned weapons face intense criticism). Having one's location (or some characteristic of the location, like radar-emissions, or being a lot of metal on an otherwise watery surface) known added the threat of autonomous missiles. The kind of weapon in your link does not extend these threats qualitatively, but quantitatively: The characteristic sought for could be anything ('human form', 'object travelling at >10km/h, ...), and can apply at any moment in a long timeframe.

Article about this subject

  • 1
    Comments and edits clarified that a key distinction was whether the "autonomous machines" could distinguish friend from foe, so I don't think these examples count unfortunately. (I've edited the question to make that requirement more prominent, because it was easy to miss.)
    – IMSoP
    Commented Jan 19, 2022 at 13:23
  • 2
    @IMSoP So a flying killing machine that loiters for a few hours, and will precision-kill any kind of armored vehicle by aiming and firing Hellfire is now not an autonomous weapon under that guideline? That is ... an interesting take.
    – bukwyrm
    Commented Jan 19, 2022 at 13:44
  • I agree, the requirements are bordering on "no true Scotsman", but if you look at the comments under the question, at least one previous answer was deleted for not meeting the definition.
    – IMSoP
    Commented Jan 19, 2022 at 13:55
  • 1
    I also think land-attack cruise missiles fit in the grey area. They've definitely killed people. However their targeting is at the building level rather than against individuals; but they do discriminate that target building from other non-target buildings during their operation.
    – Dave
    Commented Jan 19, 2022 at 15:38
  • 1
    @Dave Yes, but that's just executing the orders that were given by a human, it isn't an autonomous decision. Commented Jan 26, 2022 at 4:14

Yes, kinda.

Mines have been around for centuries and I'd call those autonomous military machines. Mines have killed countless people, on their own.

Contact mines work by someone (or a vehicle) merely touching them, influence mines by someone (or a vehicle) merely coming close and triggering the influence mechanism (whether magnetic, acoustic, heat, pressure, etc.).

They are so prevalent and so hard to get rid of after a conflict has ended that efforts to ban them from use have been going on for decades with limited success (mainly because many countries see them, rightly so, as an effective means to fight against a numerically and/or technologically superior enemy, they're perfect for long term area denial). And they do last a long time, we're still digging up mines from WW2 (and maybe WW1) 70 years after that war ended, and some of those are still dangerous.

  • 8
    This is clearly not an answer to the question being asked.
    – TimRias
    Commented Jun 29, 2021 at 8:52
  • 4
    @mmeent as he doesn't specify what he means by "autonomous military machines" it IS an answer.
    – jwenting
    Commented Jun 29, 2021 at 9:07
  • That has been specified in the comments. Your "answer" is not helpful.
    – TimRias
    Commented Jun 29, 2021 at 9:10
  • 5
    @mmeent if a piece of clarification is vital to the question, it should be in the question. Commented Jun 29, 2021 at 12:53
  • @JohnDvorak It is in the question. See the first sentence! Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 19:09

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