15 April 2015, Vol. 2, No. 3

Killer robots are not “inevitable”
Jody Williams | Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Chair of the Nobel Women’s Initiative

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If the word “inevitable” were a mallet, we would long ago have been beaten to the ground by it. But that is part of the purpose of its relentless use. It is disempowering. Deadening. If something is inevitable, there is no point in challenging it.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots completely rejects the notion that autonomous weapon systems are inevitable. Just as blinding laser weapons were banned before they showed up on the battlefield, it is possible to prohibit autonomous weapons before they are used in conflict. 

Along with the inevitability factor, we hear over and over again from some that it is “premature” to move beyond informal discussions in the CCW because such deadly technologies are so complex that states need more time to understand them in order to determine if or how they might be regulated. This is another diversionary tactic. 

For example, I do not have to be a nuclear physicist to recognise the humanitarian and legal reasons that nuclear weapons must be banned now. And I don’t have to be an expert to see that the nuclear-armed states’ plan to “upgrade” their weapons instead of moving forward with eliminating them despite the desires of 80% of the world’s population.

Not surprisingly, it is some of the nuclear-armed states that have been in the lead in developing autonomous weapons technology that say they believe it is too early to do much more than continue talking about killer robots—even as the research and development steadily moves forward.   

But here in the second series of meetings on these weapons in the CCW, it has been other voices in the ascendency. These voices recognise the moral and ethical bankruptcy of moving toward creating autonomous weapon technologies that would be able to target and kill human beings. States have repeatedly stated the need for meaningful human control over weapons used to kill other human beings. Some have called for forward movement in the CCW beyond these informal sessions. Some are staunch proponents of prohibiting these weapons.

Just as killer robots are not inevitable, it is not inevitable that the CCW limit itself to being a forum for achieving the lowest common denominator and, in effect, make no meaningful impact on reigning in these weapons before it is too late. The CCW can demonstrate the same dramatic leadership it did when it banned blinding laser weapons in 1995 and exert “meaningful human control” over killer robots and take timely, forceful action to stop them.

This is a decision that we as human beings can make. It is a decision that we must make. We must not cede the power of life and death over other human beings to autonomous machines of our own design. It is not too late. Killer robots are not inevitable.

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