Legal Limbo Leaves Killer Robots Off-Leash

The UN’s Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) met last week to discuss lethal autonomous weapons systems. But while most member states called for a legally-binding process to ensure that some form of meaningful human control be maintained over these prospective weapons systems, there is a sense of distrust among states that could fuel an artificial intelligence and robotics arms race.

  • A total of 86 countries participated in the meetings, including the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a coalition of over 60 civil society groups across 26 countries coordinated by Human Rights Watch. The goal of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is broadly to prohibit the development, production and use of lethal autonomous weapons systems in order to retain meaningful human control over life-and-death decisions in battle, policing and other situations.
  • The Pentagon, in 2012 directive, has laid out the U.S. policy that such weapons systems should allow “appropriate levels of human judgment” over the use of lethal force. But what constitutes “appropriate” remains unclear and the national policy could change depending on the evolving capabilities of other states, particularly China and Russia.
  • One of the major contentions in last week’s GGE discussions was the definition of what a fully autonomous weapons system actually is. The Netherlands proposed this definition: “a weapon that, without human intervention, selects and engages targets matching certain predefined criteria, following a human decision to deploy the weapon on the understanding that an attack, once launched, cannot be stopped by human intervention.” No formal agreements on a definition emerged from the GGE discussions.
  • States will determine steps forward at the annual CCW meeting on Friday, November 24, but a few prominent states, including the U.S. and Russia, believe it is too soon to begin negotiating new arms control measures for weapons that do not yet exist.

Doug Wise, former Deputy Director, Defense Intelligence Agency

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