The debate about fully autonomous weapons has continued to intensify since the issue reached the international stage four years ago. Lawyers, ethicists, military personnel, human rights advocates, scientists, and diplomats have argued, in a range of venues, about the legality and desirability of weapons that would select and engage targets without meaningful human control over individual attacks. Divergent views remain as military technology moves toward ever greater autonomy, but there are mounting expressions of concern about how these weapons could revolutionize warfare as we know it. This report seeks to inform and advance this debate by further elaborating on the dangers of fully autonomous weapons and making the case for a preemptive ban.
In December 2016, states parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) will convene in Geneva for the treaty’s Fifth Review Conference and decide on future measures to address “lethal autonomous weapons systems” (LAWS), their term for these weapons. Spurred to act by the efforts of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, CCW states have held three informal meetings of experts on LAWS since 2014. At the Review Conference, states parties should agree to establish a Group of Governmental Experts. The formation of this formal body would compel states to move beyond talk and create the expectation of an outcome. That outcome should be a legally binding prohibition on fully autonomous weapons.
To build support for a ban, this report responds to critics who have defended the developing technology and challenged the call for a preemptive prohibition. The report identifies 16 of the critics’ key contentions and provides a detailed rebuttal of each. It draws on extensive research into the arguments on all sides. In particular, it examines academic publications, diplomatic statements, public surveys, UN reports, and international law.
Autonomous weapons are robotic systems that, once activated, can select and engage targets without further intervention by a human operator. Advances in computer technology, artificial intelligence, and robotics may lead to a vast expansion in the development and use of such weapons in the near future. Public opinion runs strongly against killer robots. But many of the same claims that propelled the Cold War are being recycled to justify the pursuit of a nascent robotic arms race. Autonomous weapons could be militarily potent and therefore pose a great threat. For this reason, substantial pressure from civil society will be needed before major powers will seriously consider their prohibition. However, demands for human control and responsibility and the protection of human dignity and sovereignty fit naturally into the traditional law of war and imply strict limits on autonomy in weapon systems. Opponents of autonomous weapons should point out the terrible threat they pose to global peace and security, as well as their offensiveness to principles of humanity and to public conscience.
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