The United Nations agreed to commence international discussions on the development of fully autonomous “killer robots,” military weapons that can select and attack human targets without the need for human input, Human Rights Watch reports. The decision came during a two-day weapons conference in Geneva, and the date has been set for May 13-16, 2014. By starting the talks so soon the United Nations may be able to ban killer robots preemptively.
“Governments have recognized that fully autonomous weapons raise serious legal and ethical concerns, and that urgent action is needed,” said Steve Goose, Human Rights Watch arms director and co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.
Among the things the delegates are expected to discuss is the definition of “lethal autonomous weapons systems,” and only then can they begin to negotiate on whether they should place international bans on them. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, also known as UAVs or drones are remotely operated aircraft meant to fire at targets, but they are controlled by humans. Fully autonomous killer robots decide who gets to live and who gets to die, and they will be the subject of the United Nations discussions.
The United Nations already bans several types of weapons in an annex to the Geneva Conventions that went into effect in 1983. The full title is “Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects.” It places restrictions on non-detectable fragments, landmines, booby traps, and incendiary weapons. A 1995 protocol restricted laser weapons that can cause permanent blindness. A 2003 protocol set rules for clearing remnants of war.
The United States, China, Russia, the UK, South Korea, and Israel are among 117 countries that have signed the Convention on Conventional Weapons, but these countries are all known to have advanced automated weapons technology.
The United States uses the Phalanx Close-In Weapon System on its ships, which “automatically carries out functions usually performed by multiple systems, including search, detection, threat evaluation, tracking, engagement, and kill assessment.” Samsung Techwin of South Korea is developing the SGR1 robot, which can patrol its North Korean border armed with machine guns and grenade launchers. BAE Systems of the UK is working on the Taranis, an unmanned stealth plane that can fly international missions. These new weapons might be a glimpse at the robot armies of the future, the subject of Will Smith and Arnold Schwarzenegger action films.
In late 2012, the US became the first country to make a public policy on autonomous weapons systems, placing a five to 10 year ban on them, but Human Rights Watch argues that there is a significant loophole. The document uses the loosely defined term “urgent military operational need” and allows for the ban on fully autonomous weapons to be waived by a Deputy Secretary of Defense.
An additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions could place a prohibition on fully autonomous weapons, Goose hopes. “The race to stop killer robots reflects the degree to which the public views such a development with horror and revulsion,” Goose said. With the United Nations talks scheduled for next May, the path has been laid for hashing out international restrictions on killer robots.
By K. Elsner