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First strikes against ‘killer robots’

Posted on August 10, 2018

Jakub Stępniak
Jakub Stępniak
Senior Associate, Research Products

This blog originally appeared on GES International’s website and has been republished following Sustainaltyics’ acquisition of the company on 9 January 2019. See the press release for more information.

On 27 June, the Belgian parliament unanimously voted on a resolution to ban killer robots. This decision is likely to become a milestone in the fight to stop the development and use of such technology worldwide. It is especially important ahead of the United Nations convention which is set to begin on 27 August in Geneva. The road towards a full ban, however, looks to be long and arduous.

Killer robots, or the less-evocatively-but-technically named Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS), have no agreed-upon definition yet, but are generally understood as military systems that can operate without the direct and final control of a human being. Most developed LAWS are designed to make intelligent decisions on how to deploy lethal force based on their current tactical environment. This autonomy is what most sets them apart from the currently used combat drones, as drones need to be operated by a person. The concerns about LAWS are many. Among the chief ones is the concept of ceding moral responsibility for the use of lethal force to a machine, their potential inability to distinguish between military and civilian targets, and lack of legal accountability. They may threaten an escalation of warfare and an arms race.

LAWS are not a new invention, but to this day the systems were always defensive in nature. Land and naval mines have been in use for centuries. Recent years have seen the development of missile defence systems and sentry guns. There are currently no offensive LAWS, but research into their development is being conducted by countries such as the USA, the UK, China, Russia, and Israel.

The threat of LAWS, however, has been acknowledged and highlighted by some of the most recognizable names of our times. In 2015, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Noam Chomsky, and Steve Wozniak, among others, signed an open letter cautioning against the use of killer robots. In 2017, Musk again found himself a signatory of an open letter from 116 founders of robotics and AI companies from 26 countries.

Campaigners against LAWS have their work cut out for them, but the decision of the Belgian parliament is definitely a step in the right direction. In 1996, Belgium was the first country to ban landmines and ten years later the country was the first to ban cluster munitions. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come. News from Geneva should soon tell us what progress has been made.

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