CCW Report, Vol. 6, No. 1

Time is running out

Mary Wareham
9 April 2018

Download full edition in PDF

Governments are running out of time to prevent the development of weapon systems that would select targets and attack without further human intervention. This year, nations should agree to begin negotiating  new international law on fully autonomous weapons. Any lesser measures will be doomed to failure.

Several autonomous weapon systems with decreasing levels of human control are currently in development and use by high-tech militaries such as the US, China, Israel, South Korea, Russia, and the UK. The concern is that a variety of available sensors and advances in artificial intelligence are making it increasingly practical to design weapons systems that would target and attack without any meaningful human control. If the trend towards autonomy continues, humans may start to fade out of the decision-making loop for certain military actions, perhaps retaining only a limited oversight role, or simply setting broad mission parameters.

 This month marks five years since the launch of our Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, the global coalition of non-governmental organisations working to preemptively ban the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons, also known as lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWs). The campaign fundamentally objects to permitting machines to take human life on the battlefield or in policing, border control, and other circumstances.

April also marks the fifth time since May 2014 that countries have convened at the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) to discuss lethal autonomous weapon systems. At the last meeting in November 2017, many states expressed their strong desire to begin negotiating new international law. Almost all states have agreed with the need to retain some form of human control over future weapon systems and several say they have “no plans” to acquire or develop fully autonomous weapons. To date, 22 countries have unequivocally called for a ban on fully autonomous weapons and we hope to hear more expressions of support for the ban objective this week.

In a Briefing Note prepared for this week’s CCW meeting, the Campaign urges states to identify the relevant “touchpoints” of human/machine interaction in weapons systems and explain how control is applied over existing weapon systems, especially those with certain autonomous or automatic functions. States should be explicit in stating that meaningful human control is required over individual attacks and that weapon systems that operate without such human control should be prohibited.

While the exact wording of legal definitions would be finalised during negotiations as required, the Campaign also encourages states to elaborate the key characteristics for a working definition of lethal autonomous weapon systems—based on them being systems operating without meaningful human control in the “critical functions” of identifying, selecting, and applying force to targets.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is calling on states to conclude by 2020 a legally binding instrument prohibiting fully autonomous weapon systems. Other diplomatic options should be explored if the CCW is not up to this task. It also encourages states to swiftly adopt national legislation banning fully autonomous weapon systems.