02 Mar 2018

Killer Robots Taking Over?

The United Nations’ Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) met for the first time in November 2017, after their summer meeting was cancelled. They met for five days to open discussions on weapons systems that have the ability to identify and destroy targets entirely without human control. Such Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS) are said to be almost ready for deployment, driving the need to legislate their use and set international standards.

By Tom Dent-Spargo

Willyam Bradberry / Shutterstock.com


Activists, such as the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, argue that time is running out to arrive at the solution to this global problem and have expressed regrets over the slow pace of the UN discussions means that they are unable to properly respond to an arms race that is already under way. An open letter was written earlier this year, backed by many experts around the world in related fields imploring the CCW to ban autonomous weapons entirely.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots has created a short film called “Slaughterbots” designed to showcase the massive potential of LAWS and what can happen if they are allowed to be developed without proper legal structures regulating their use. They are using the film to support their case for preemptively banning the technology before it can ever reach the state depicted.

India’s disarmament ambassador, Amandeep Gill chaired the CCW meeting and has called for calm on the matter. He moved to reassure those present that robots are not yet taking over the world, and that humans are still in charge, pointing out that this is an issue that is susceptible to being over dramatised and emotionalised or exaggerated. Even the use of a term like, “killer robot” by the campaign can be seen as almost inflammatory. 

Anthropomorphism is a major pitfall in the perception of robotics of any kind, but it is especially heightened with LAWS. An autonomous weapon can range from unmanned sentry guns to a simple drone with a gun strapped to it. Using the term “robot soldier” or “killer robot” to describe LAWS puts them into a new context, one which is not necessarily helpful for understanding autonomous weapons. There is a consensus of what the term “soldier” means and leads inevitably to a particular image from the realms of science fiction, such as the foot soldiers from the Terminator franchise, with their sinister skull visages and glowing red eyes and a disregard for human life. It is this sort of dramatising that Gill is keen to avoid.


Legal Instruments

Twenty-two countries have agreed with the campaigners and called for an outright ban of LAWS, using the argument that the weapons are by definition illegal as every individual decision to make a military strike has to be made by a human. Many of these countries calling for a ban have comparatively smaller military budgets and less technical knowledge in the realm of LAWS. However, a full ban remains a very distant prospect, as well as even an international agreement on rules concerning the weapons. There will be meetings by countries on this issue for another two weeks in 2018 to go into the details of LAWS’ operations and how they can be controlled.

The need for a legally binding instrument to control the use of LAWS, while still a distant prospect, has emerged as a point of agreement at the CCW, with most countries arguing that it remains a priority and that there must be human control involved and maintained over autonomous weapons. What this effective human control actually entails is another point to be discussed in future summits.

Activists will continue to press for a full ban of autonomous weapons. Many are confident that there will be an outright ban, but one of the issues remains when it will occur. Will it be in time or will people’s lives have to be lost before the international community is able to react properly? Of course, proponents of LAWS will argue that with an appropriate legal and regulatory structure in place, they will be able to deployed effectively and at minimum risk compared to the greater reward. Both positions are calling for urgent and immediate attention to this issue to minimise any potential harm.


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