UN told to ban killer robots before they become a reality

Killer robot

Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic have a strong and eye-catching message for the U.N.: “Ban killer robots.” The two groups take up the cause against fully autonomous weapons in a 38-page report released ahead of an international meeting about said weapons starting April 13.

“Fully autonomous weapons, also known as ‘killer robots,’ raise serious moral and legal concerns because they would possess the ability to select and engage their targets without meaningful human control,” begins the report, titled Mind the Gap: The Lack of Accountability for Killer Robots. Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School lay out a list of concerns about fully autonomous weapons, including doubts about their ability to distinguish civilian from military targets, the possibility of an arms race, and proliferation to militaries with little regard for the law.

All of those concerns are compounded by the accountability gap for “unlawful harm caused by fully autonomous weapons,” according to the report. Under current laws, parties associated with the use or production of killer robots (e.g., operators, commanders, programmers, manufacturers) would not be held liable in the case of harm caused by the robots. The ultimate solution proposed by the report is to adopt an international ban on fully autonomous weapons.

On Monday, a weeklong international meeting about autonomous weapons systems will take place at the U.N. in Geneva. The agenda will cover additions to The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.

“Also known as the inhumane weapons convention, the treaty has been regularly reinforced by new protocols on emerging military technology,” according to The Guardian. “Blinding laser weapons were pre-emptively outlawed in 1995 and combatant nations since 2006 have been required to remove unexploded cluster bombs.”

The paper is an early discussion of a hypothetical future world, and the authors of the paper admit as much: “Fully autonomous weapons do not yet exist, but technology is moving in their direction, and precursors are already in use or development.” The examples listed in the paper all respond to threats automatically, putting them a step beyond drones, which require a human to control it from a remote location.

“No accountability means no deterrence of future crimes, no retribution for victims, no social condemnation of the responsible party,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior Arms Division researcher at Human Rights Watch and the report’s lead author. “The many obstacles to justice for potential victims show why we urgently need to ban fully autonomous weapons.”

In November 2013, an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal co-authored by two professors disputed the notion that fully autonomous weapons need to be banned. Malicious actors already disposed to abusing such weapons would not respect a ban, argued Kenneth Anderson and Matthew Waxman. “Moreover, because the automation of weapons will happen gradually, it would be nearly impossible to design or enforce such a ban.”

Anderson and Waxman also suggested that autonomous weapons could reduce suffering and protect human lives rather than the opposite. Nevertheless, the co-authors said careful regulation is warranted.

“Autonomous weapons are not inherently unlawful or unethical,” they concluded. “If we adapt legal and ethical norms to address robotic weapons, they can be used responsibly and effectively on the battlefield.”