Advancements in artificial intelligence have moved killer robots from the realm of science fiction to possible reality

UN debates killer robot policies

The United Nations is hosting a four-day conference on killer robots to discuss future policies to govern the controversial technology.

Killer robots, also known as lethal autonomous weapon systems, are capable of making their own decisions and act without human intervention. Compared with commonly used drones, the killer robots represent the next step in the evolution of warfare, which some are less happy to see.

“Although fully autonomous weapons are not in operation yet, a number of states are well underway in research, development and testing of related technologies,” said Professor Noel Sharkey from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Computer Science who is chairing a debate at the UN Convention of Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva.

“Weapons with greater levels of autonomy are already starting to be put in action, we launched a campaign from the House of Commons last year calling for a new international treaty to be developed to prohibit these weapons systems,” he said.

Many of the convention’s participants agree that existing laws do not properly cover weapons capable of independent action.

Michael Moeller, acting head of the UN's European headquarters in Geneva, urged the adoption of pre-emptive new laws to ensure human control, because "all too often international law only responds to atrocities and suffering once it has happened".

The question of responsibility is the ultimate issue for many involved in the debate as automated killer machines take the need of making life-or-death decisions away from humans.

“If we do not put an end to this trend for automating warfare now, we could face a very bleak future where machines are delegated with the decision to kill humans,” said Professor Sharkey. “This is perhaps the ultimate human indignity and crosses a fundamental moral line which needs to be considered and addressed.”

The current convention represents only the first round of discussions. The decision about the next steps regarding lethal autonomous weapon system is expected to be taken at the annual meeting of the Convention on Conventional Weapons at the UN in November 2014.

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