Back ‘killer robot’ ban, activists tell German government

Activists from more than 100 campaign groups have called on German politicians to champion an international ban on the development and use of lethal autonomous weapons.

The development of lethal autonomous weapons – such as ground-based systems capable of detecting enemy troops and automatically opening fire on them – have been strongly criticised by academics, campaigners and some industrial leaders. In July 2018, 160 tech companies and 2400 individuals (including Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Skype founder Jaan Tallinn and Google DeepMind co-founder Demis Hassabis) signed an open letter calling for an international ban on lethal autonomous weapons.

“AI weapons that autonomously decide to kill people are as disgusting and destabilising as bioweapons, and should be dealt with the same way,” the letter stated. Concerns about the weapons include the possibility of cyber attacks and programming errors causing the weapons to kill uncontrollably, as well as the ethical implications of allowing machines to make lethal decisions.

Other weapons with the potential to cause unnecessary and excessive suffering have been banned by international treaties. Land mines, biological weapons, nerve agents, space-based weapons of mass destruction and blinding lasers are among the weapons forbidden by these treaties.

A similar ban on lethal autonomous weapons has been discussed at international meetings, including a meeting of UN leaders, although no ban has been agreed upon. In an official statement, the Russian government rejected a potential ban on lethal autonomous weapons, arguing that this would be inappropriate and damaging to innovation.

At least one Russian company, Kalashnikov, is developing autonomous weapons systems, although these systems are also under development in the US, UK, China and many other countries. The US and China have also expressed disapproval towards proposals for an international ban, while the EU has expressed support for a ban.

In the latest push to stem the development of these systems, more than 100 NGOs assembled in the centre of the German capital with a large robot model, to pile pressure on the government to endorse an international ban on these weapons systems. The campaigners included Jody Williams, who was awarded the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for leading the effort to ban landmines.

“If Germany showed leadership and got behind [the ban], we’d soon have the rest of Europe behind it,” Noel Sharkey, co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, told Reuters. According to the campaign, fully autonomous weapons systems could be deployed in just three to four years.

The German government has supported a ban on these systems in its 2013 and 2018 coalition agreements. Last week, Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas called for international action to ensure that lethal weapons remain under human control, although he is championing a non-binding declaration, rather than an outright international ban.

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