Killer robots are coming!

The UN has convened an informal meeting of experts in Geneva to discuss, basically, the legal framework of using autonomous robots in military roles in a man out of the loop mode.

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In a short story entitled "Runaround," and published in 1942, prolific scientist and author Isaac Asimov introduces what have become known as The Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

But perhaps, not everyone agrees with something so simple, as robots with lethal military applications are in the pipeline.

The four-day informal Meeting of Experts, under the auspices of the UN from 13 to 16 May 2014, in Geneva, is discussing the questions related to emerging technologies in the area of lethal autonomous weapons systems.
Essentially, the meeting is looking at what will happen in the future as artificially intelligent systems take to the battlefield, this time without human control, or even supervision. Despite the fact that the robots from the Terminator movies are not yet here, it seems they not as far down the timeline as you would think. “This actual rise of the machines,” Denise Garcia, writes in Foreign Affairs, “raises important strategic, moral, and legal questions about whether the international community should empower robots to kill.”

“This actual rise of the machines,” Denise Garcia, writes in Foreign Affairs, “raises important strategic, moral, and legal questions about whether the international community should empower robots to kill.”

For those on the receiving end of UCAV strikes it is already a moot point, however, there is an important distinction. Drones are operated, albeit remotely, by humans.
The Meeting of Experts chaired by Ambassador Jean-Hugues Simon-Michel of France, is the first time that the issue of LAWS (Lethal Autonomous Weapons) will be addressed within the CCW (the abbreviation of “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 AS AMENDED ON 21 DECEMBER 2001”).

In terms of structure, the Meeting of Experts commenced with a general exchange and then there are sessions on the technical issues, ethics, legal aspects, operation and military aspects. Each thematic session begins with kick-start presentations by experts. Delegations have then the opportunity to pose questions and comments to the experts, and to make interventions.

Diplomats urged the adoption of new international laws that could govern or outright forbid the use of killer robots if the technology becomes reality someday.

Diplomats urged the adoption of new international laws that could govern or outright forbid the use of killer robots if the technology becomes reality someday.

Representatives began trying to define the limits and responsibilities of so-called lethal autonomous weapons systems that could go beyond human-directed drones already being used by some armies today.

"All too often international law only responds to atrocities and suffering once it has happened," Michael Moeller, acting head of the U.N.'s European headquarters in Geneva, told diplomats at the start of the four-day gathering. "You have the opportunity to take pre-emptive action and ensure that the ultimate decision to end life remains firmly under human control."

He noted that the U.N. treaty they were meeting to discuss — the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons adopted by 117 nations including the world's major powers — was used before to prohibit the use of blinding laser weapons in the 1990s before they were ever deployed on the battlefield, and this "serves as an example to be followed again."

There was an expressed feeling that existing laws probably won't cover future weapons that could autonomously decide on targets without human intervention.

There was an expressed feeling that existing laws probably won't cover future weapons that could autonomously decide on targets without human intervention.

"It is indispensable to maintain human control over the decision to kill another human being," German Ambassador Michael Biontino told the meeting. "This principle of human control is the foundation of the entire international humanitarian law."

Through an intervention by U.S. diplomat and legal adviser Stephen Townley, the USA made clear that they will persist in developing such exotic technologies. Mr Townlley cautioned the meeting against pre-judging the uses of emerging technologies.

Obviously, this is just a first step. The problems are more complicated than may seem, and are further compounded by the fact that some countries already at the cutting edge of these technologies will stall as much as possible in order to obtain a strategic advantage and may in fact throw spanners in the works along the way.

 

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