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CCW Report, Vol. 6, No. 6

Address killer robot concerns by creating new law
27 August 2018


Mary Wareham | Campaign to Stop Killer Robots

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As states gather for the sixth time since 2014 to discuss autonomous weapons at the United Nations, support is now rapidly growing for creating new international law to respond to the many serious challenges raised by lethal autonomous weapons systems, also known as fully autonomous weapons or “killer robots.” The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots believes it is time for states to start negotiating new international law to draw a normative line on autonomy in weapons systems.

States can start now by proposing a new mandate to move the talks at the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) from discussions to negotiations, as Austria and others have proposed. International law must be strengthened to ensure protections against arbitrary and unlawful taking of life.

There now appears to be convergence on the urgent need for a new ban treaty to retain meaningful human control over the critical functions of weapons systems and the use of force. States should take note of the many significant developments in the five months since the last CCW meeting.

The United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres pledged on 24 May to support states to elaborate new measures such as “legally binding arrangements” to ensure that “humans remain at all times in control over the use of force.” The offer is contained in the UN head’s 74-pp disarmament agenda launched, which notes how “a growing number of States, including some with advanced military capabilities, have called for a preventative prohibition on lethal autonomous weapon systems.”

Google issued a set of ethical principles on 7 June that state that Google is “not developing AI for use in weapons” and “will not design or deploy AI” for technology that causes “overall harm” or “contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.” Days before announcing the principles, Google said it would not renew its involvement in a controversial US Department of Defense program that seeks to autonomously process video footage shot by surveillance drones once the contracts expires in 2019. These moves came after a concerted campaign by technology workers and their allies.

On 5 July, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for the urgent negotiation of “an international ban on weapon systems that lack human control over the use of force.” The day before, Belgium’s national parliament adopted a resolution that calls for a ban on fully autonomous weapons. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots has received pledges of support from parliamentartians and the public at events in recent months in capitals including Abuja, Helsinki, London, Pretoria, Seoul, and Tokyo, and Yaoundé.

At a major world congress of leading AI researchers on 18 July, over 200 technology companies and organizations from more than 36 countries and 2,600 individuals issued a pledge committing to “neither participate in nor support the development, manufacture, trade, or use of lethal autonomous weapons.” Citing moral, accountability, proliferation, and security-related concerns over fully autonomous weapons the pledge finds that “the decision to take a human life should never be delegated to a machine.”

The pledges of support for taking meaningful action on killer robots are becoming too numerous to count. It’s time states heed the call and start negotiating a legally binding instrument that prohibits fully autonomous weapons.

During this CCW meeting, states should express their support for a negotiating mandate so that negotiations can begin in 2019 with the objective of adopting a new CCW protocol on lethal autonomous weapons systems by 2020. States must 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.

Therefore, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots stands ready to assist states interested in negotiating  new international law on fully autonomous weapons. We seek preventive action, to pre-empt the development of fully autonomous weapons. We do not intend to turn into a reactive campaign aimed at curbing the widespread proliferation. If the CCW is not up to this task then other multilateral options should be explored.

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