Should you worry about Killer Robots?

April 19, 2018

Last week, the Group of Governmental Experts met at the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva, Switzerland. Many countries, including Canada, provided statements on autonomous weapons, advancing discussions that started 4 years ago. Project Ploughshares was one of the several civil society organizations observing the meetings.

In a surprising turn of events, China stated that it would support the negotiation of an additional CCW protocol to prohibit the use of fully autonomous weapons. Some analysts have pointed out that China’s offer focuses on offensive uses and is thus a limited commitment. Still, it is a step in the right direction. China’s statement told other countries that a major power is willing to go beyond talk and agree to a new legally binding instrument.

With China onboard, the number of countries seeking to prohibit weapons that can independently select and engage targets has risen to 26. Austria became the first European country to call for a ban. Many Latin American and African states are actively engaged in discussions, the majority calling for a new, legally binding instrument.

Most countries see the need to maintain some form of human control over critical functions, such as decisions to target and kill. Machines should not decide who lives and who dies.

In that sense, there should be some comfort that states are paying attention to the issue and are considering possible ways to ensure that international humanitarian norms and laws are maintained. However, this is not enough.

While technology advances in leaps and bounds, diplomatic processes move at a snail’s pace. CCW members don’t meet again until late August and after that not until November. They have been meeting like this for FOUR years. And it is not yet clear when any regulation will materialize.

So, yes, we should worry that tech is outpacing law. In our modern world, this is a common concern. With autonomous weapons the risks are acute.

While in Geneva, I attended a side event on human control of autonomous weapons systems. According to Professor Peter Asaro, if governments don’t regulate soon, computer engineers and developers will become de facto policymakers.

At the last session of the week-long talks, the Chair, Ambassador Amandeep Singh Gill of India, presented four options to the members. The first two: 1. They could decide that existing laws can deal with autonomous weapons. 2. They could spend more time examining the problem.

Easy to see that these won’t help much.

OR: 3. They could bring forward new regulations in a legally binding protocol or treaty. 4. They could produce a political declaration and code of conduct, which, while not legally binding, have significant moral suasion. This last is preferred by some states with political heft, such as France and Germany, but the risks associated with autonomous weapons would continue to weigh on the minds of many.

Autonomous weapons systems have been called the “third revolution in warfare after gunpowder and nuclear arms” by leading scientists and tech developers. Without regulation, the risks posed by these weapons will only increase. So, should you worry?

Project Ploughshares is a member of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which has called on states to agree in November on a mandate for formal negotiations in 2019. No more delay is warranted; countries have already had lots of time to hear from many experts. And academics, tech experts and civil society are more than willing to engage and consult with governments to fill in any gaps. (As though they could keep us quiet!)

What states need is political will.

This includes Canada, which has so far made only vague assertions that weapons should be developed with an appropriate level of human involvement. What does appropriate involvement mean? It could mean that a human operator monitors the weapons system, but can’t really intervene. We have a right to know exactly where our government stands.

In Geneva, Canada made an important statement about the need to include women in these discussions, and about the need for gender-based analysis. This is important. Worthy of note. But where is the vision to go with this enlightened process? Where is the sense of urgency?

At a minimum, our government should be calling for a ban on fully autonomous weapons.

The time to act is now! Canada has a choice. It can either be a player or spectator. If it chooses the latter, we will all have a lot to worry about.

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