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How did we get here? 9 major milestones in the history of killer robots

The idea of robotic warfare has been a sci-fi staple for ages. Decades before Terminator invoked a hellish world pitting man against machine, the 1920s play which introduced us to the word “robot” predicted the end of humanity at the metallic hands of murderous bots.

Lately, however, the topic has became a much bigger issue as science fiction has become science reality. The likes of Elon Musk of Tesla and Mustafa Suleyman of Google have written to the United Nations urging a ban on the development and use of autonomous “killer robots” such as drones, tanks, and machine guns.

But while the pace of this “third revolution in warfare” is speeding up, interest in similar weapons dates back years. Here are nine important milestones that set us on the path to where we are here in 2017.

Da Vinci’s Robotic Knight

history of killer robots leonardo robot 1

If you’re looking for the point in history at which the idea of robotic troops on the battlefield became a possibility, you have to go all the way back to Italian Renaissance polymath Leonardo Da Vinci.

In the late 1400s, Da Vinci designed and built a robotic knight that was capable of sitting down, standing up, walking, and moving its head and arms. All of this was performed via a series of gears and pulleys.

The designs for this bot were rediscovered in sketchbooks during the 1950s, and roboticist Mark Rosheim used them to build a working prototype in 2002.

The first Tesla electric vehicle

history of killer robots tesla robot 2

In 1898, inventor Nikola Tesla showed off the world’s first wireless remote control vehicle (a small boat) at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Tesla’s demonstration involved maneuvering the boat without touching it, as well as it turning on-board lights off and on.

Later, he unsuccessfully attempted to sell the “teleautomaton” device, alongside a proposal for similarly radio-guided torpedoes, to the United States military. Tesla had big plans for the technology.

According to Margaret Cheney’s biography Tesla: A Man Out of Time, he described the device as not just a wireless torpedo but the, “first of a race of robots, mechanical men which will do the laborious work of the human race.”

Russian Teletanks

history of killer robots teletank

When you think about robot-controlled tanks being deployed in a wartime scenario, you probably picture something from the year 2040, not the year 1940 — but that’s exactly when the Soviet Union was using its “Teletanks.”

Made up of existing T-26 light tanks, kitted out with hydraulics and control, the unmanned Teletanks could be piloted from more than a kilometer away. Operators were able to remotely steer the vehicles, fire their machine guns, and even deploy a flame thrower. While they didn’t have any autonomous sensing capabilities, or even the ability to relay audio back to their operators, Teletanks were one of the earliest examples of warfare robots in action.

Until they got out of radio range and shuddered to a halt, that is!

Here comes Goliath