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Killer robots on the prowl

Treaty banning killer robots ‘deserves urgent multilateral action’

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A growing number of countries have expressed desire for an international treaty banning use of autonomous lethal weapons, according to research from non-profit Human Rights Watch.

According to the report, 'Stopping Killer Robots: Country Positions on Banning Fully Autonomous Weapons and Retaining Human Control', at least 30 countries have come out in support of an international treaty which would require human input to be retained in autonomous weapons systems. The research reviewed the policies of 97 countries which had discussed ‘killer robots’ since 2013, when the 'Campaign to Stop Killer Robots' was established.

Countries calling for a ban on fully autonomous weapons include China, Mexico, Pakistan, Iraq, Argentina, Brazil, Austria, Colombia and Uganda.

The report describes weapons systems capable of identifying and engaging targets without meaningful human control as “unacceptable”. Autonomous weapons systems capable of identifying and tracking human targets have been deployed in the Arabic Peninsula and Korean Demilitarised Zone, although they have been configured to require human confirmation before firing.

While many countries, international organisations, research institutions, and high-profile individuals have backed campaigns to ensure that military robots cannot deploy lethal force without human input, Human Rights Watch warns that a small number of military superpowers, notably the US and Russia, have “firmly rejected proposals” around regulation.

A succession of annual UN conventions to discuss lethal autonomous weapons systems have so far built international support for a ban in the form of a new protocol to the Convention on Conventional Weapons. Since 2018, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has urged countries to prohibit these weapons systems, referring to them as “morally repugnant and politically unacceptable”.

The UK government is not listed among those calling for an outright ban on autonomous weapons, although the report said that UK policy is that there must be “human oversight” retained when deploying these weapons. The report notes that the UK is developing some “autonomous solutions” with military applications.

Mary Wareham, arms division advocate at Human Rights Watch and coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, said that as AI technologies accelerate action must be taken internationally to prevent the loss of human oversight of weapons systems.

“Removing human control from the use of force is now widely regarded as a grave threat to humans that, like climate change, deserves urgent multilateral action,” Wareham said. “An international ban treaty is the only effective way to deal with the serious challenges raised by fully autonomous weapons.

It’s abundantly clear that retaining meaningful human control over the use of force is an ethical imperative, a legal necessity and a moral obligation. All countries need to respond with urgency by opening negotiations on a new international ban treaty.”

Wareham added that many governments share the same concerns about ‘killer robots’ and their desire to retain human oversight is a good basis for collective action.

“While the pandemic has delayed diplomacy, it shows the importance of being prepared and responding with urgency to existential threats to humanity, such as killer robots,” she added.

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