The use of fully autonomous weapons in a theatre of war would breach international law, campaigners and experts say, as longstanding calls for a ban on “killer robots” intensify. These AI-powered guns, planes, ships and tanks could fight future wars without being subject to any human control, as high-tech nations step up investment in the weapons and inch towards full autonomy. Twenty-six countries explicitly support a prohibition on fully autonomous weapons, with Austria, Belgium and China recently joining thousands of scientists and artificial intelligence experts and more than 20 Nobel peace prize laureates in declaring their support.
In a new report published jointly by Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, the organisations have stated that fully autonomous weapons would violate the Martens Clause – a well-established provision of international humanitarian law. It requires emerging technologies to be judged by the “principles of humanity” and the “dictates of public conscience” when they are not already covered by other treaty provisions. “Permitting the development and use of killer robots would undermine established moral and legal standards,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch, which coordinates the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. “Countries should work together to pre-emptively ban these weapons systems before they proliferate around the world. “The groundswell of opposition among scientists, faith leaders, tech companies, nongovernmental groups, and ordinary citizens shows that the public understands that killer robots cross a moral threshold. Their concerns, shared by many governments, deserve an immediate response.”
More than 70 governments are meeting at the UN in Geneva on 27 August for the sixth time to discuss the challenges raised by fully autonomous weapons. The talks were formalised under a major disarmament treaty in 2017 but they are not yet directed toward a specific goal, and there has been widespread frustration among campaigners with the glacial pace of the process. However, if states recommend negotiations should begin in 2019, it will help pave the way for their formal approval in November, after almost every country agreed that some form of human control should be maintained over the use of force at the last meeting in April. “The idea of delegating life and death decisions to cold, compassionless machines without empathy or understanding cannot comply with the Martens clause, and it makes my blood run cold,” said Noel Sharkey, a roboticist who wrote about the reality of robot war as far back as 2007 and has acted as a spokesperson for the Campaign to Ban Killer Robots. “We expect more European countries will step up and that the clamour will get us that keyword ‘negotiation’ into the mandate for next year. There is already a growing consensus that human control of weapons systems is crucial in conflict. “Some states would prefer to shift from a prohibition protocol to one that requires a positive obligation to ensure meaningful human control, and both amount to the same humanitarian law,” he added.
Fully autonomous weapons do not yet exist, but high-ranking military officials have said that the use of the devices – which would select and engage targets without meaningful human control – will be widespread in warfare in a matter of years. At least 381 partly autonomous weapon and military robotics systems have been deployed or are under development in 12 states, including France, Israel, Russia, the UK and the US. It has been reported that Russia opposes the ban of fully autonomous weapon systems, joining various others – including the US – who could seek to block any future negotiations. Automatic systems, such as mechanised sentries in the Korean demilitarised zone and Israel’s Iron Dome, have already been deployed but cannot act fully autonomously. Research by the International Data Corporation has suggested that global spending on robotics will double from $91.5bn (£71.8bn) in 2016 to $188bn in 2020 and bring full autonomy closer to realisation.
Credit: Mattha Busby for The Guardian, 21 August 2018.