Nations around the world agreed in November to continue deliberations on “lethal autonomous weapons systems” – that is, weapons systems that would be able to select their targets and use force without any further human intervention.
There are serious concerns that fully autonomous weapons systems – or “killer robots,” as they are also called – would not be able to distinguish between soldiers and civilians, or judge whether a military action is proportional.
Countries could choose to deploy these weapons more frequently and with less critical consideration if they do not have to worry about sacrificing troops. Proliferation of these weapons systems could spin out of control easily, both for military and police use.
At the prompting of nongovernmental organizations and United Nations experts, discussions began earlier this year to address the many technical, legal, military, ethical, and societal questions relating to the prospect of lethal autonomous weapons systems.
The debate should be expected to deepen and broaden as the talks continue. The hope is that they will lead rapidly to formal negotiations on a new treaty pre-emptively banning weapons systems that do not require meaningful human control over the key functions of targeting and firing.
Such weapons in their fully autonomous form do not exist yet, but several precursors that are in development in the United States, China, Israel, Russia, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and other nations with high-tech militaries demonstrate the trend toward ever-increasing autonomy on land, in the air, and on or under the water.
If the military robotic developments proceed unchecked, the concern is that machines, rather than humans, could ultimately make life-or-death decisions on the battlefield or in law enforcement.
By agreeing to keep talking, the 118 nations that are part of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), an existing international treaty, acknowledged the unease that the idea of such weapons causes for the public.
A new global coalition of nongovernmental organizations called the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots continues to pick up endorsements, with more than 275 scientists, 70 faith leaders, and 20 Nobel Peace laureates joining its ranks in calling for a pre-emptive ban on the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons. In August, Canada’s Clearpath Robotics became the first private company to endorse the campaign and pledge not to knowingly develop and manufacture such weapons systems.
The UN expert on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, has called on all countries to adopt a moratorium on these weapons. Austria has urged nations engaged in the development of such weapons systems to freeze these programs, and has called on nations deliberating about starting such development to make a commitment not to do so.
Talking about the issue is good, but diplomacy is moving at a slow pace compared with the rapid technological developments. The commitment of the CCW talks – a week of talks over the course of an entire year – is unambitious. It is imperative for diplomatic talks to pick up the pace and create a new international treaty to ensure that humans retain control of targeting and attack decisions.
In the meantime, nations need to start establishing their own policies on these weapons, implementing bans or moratoriums at a national level.
The United States has developed a detailed policy on autonomous weapons that, for now, requires a human being to be “in the loop” when decisions are made about using lethal force, unless department officials waive the policy at a high level. While positive, the policy is not a comprehensive or permanent solution to the problems posed, and it may prove hard to sustain if other nations begin to deploy fully autonomous weapons systems.
One thing is clear: Doing nothing and letting ever-greater autonomy in warfare proceed unchecked is no longer an option.