Campaign of the Month: Campaign to Stop Killer Robots


Over the past decade, the expanded use of unmanned armed vehicles has dramatically changed warfare, bringing new humanitarian and legal challenges. Now rapid advances in technology are resulting in efforts to develop fully autonomous weapons. These robotic weapons would be able to choose and fire on targets on their own, without any human intervention. The Problem describes numerous ethical, legal, moral, policy, technical and other concerns with fully autonomous weapons.

Giving machines the power to decide who lives and dies on the battlefield is an unacceptable application of technology. Human control of any combat robot is essential to ensuring both humanitarian protection and effective legal control. A comprehensive, pre-emptive prohibition on fully autonomous weapons is urgently needed. The Solution outlines how a ban could be achieved through an international treaty, as well as through national laws and other measures.
In recent years, the benefits and dangers of fully autonomous weapons have been hotly debated by a relatively small community of specialists, including military personnel, scientists, roboticists, ethicists, philosophers, and lawyers. They have evaluated autonomous weapons from a range of perspectives, including military utility, cost, policy, and the ethics of delegating life-and-death decisions to a machine. Our Bibliography provides a list of recent publications about this challenge, while Statements contains documents issued by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

The Problem

Over the past decade, the expanded use of unmanned armed vehicles has dramatically changed warfare, bringing new humanitarian and legal challenges. Now rapid advances in technology are resulting in efforts to develop fully autonomous weapons. These robotic weapons would be able to choose and fire on targets on their own, without any human intervention. This capability would pose a fundamental challenge to the protection of civilians and to compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law.

Several nations with high-tech militaries, including China, Israel, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, are moving toward systems that would give greater combat autonomy to machines. If one or more chooses to deploy fully autonomous weapons, a large step beyond remote-controlled armed drones, others may feel compelled to abandon policies of restraint, leading to a robotic arms race. Agreement is needed now to establish controls on these weapons before investments, technological momentum, and new military doctrine make it difficult to change course.

Allowing life or death decisions to be made by machines crosses a fundamental moral line. Autonomous robots would lack human judgment and the ability to understand context. These qualities are necessary to make complex ethical choices on a dynamic battlefield, to distinguish adequately between soldiers and civilians, and to evaluate the proportionality of an attack.  As a result fully autonomous weapons would not meet the requirements of the laws of war.
Replacing human troops with machines could make the decision to go to war easier, which would shift the burden of armed conflict further onto civilians. The use of fully autonomous weapons would create an accountability gap as there is no clarity on who would be legally responsible for a robot’s actions: the commander, programmer, manufacturer, or robot itself? Without accountability, these parties would have less incentive to ensure robots did not endanger civilians and victims would be left unsatisfied that someone was punished for the harm they experienced.

The Solution

Giving machines the power to decide who lives and dies on the battlefield is an unacceptable application of technology. Human control of any combat robot is essential to ensuring both humanitarian protection and effective legal control. The campaign seeks to prohibit taking a human out-of-the-loop with respect to targeting and attack decisions on the battlefield.
A comprehensive, pre-emptive prohibition on the development, production and use of fully autonomous weapons–weapons that operate on their own without human intervention–is urgently needed. This could be achieved through an international treaty, as well as through national laws and other measures.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots urge all countries to consider and publicly elaborate their policy on fully autonomous weapons, particularly with respect to the ethical, legal, policy, technical, and other concerns that have been raised.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots calls on all countries to welcome the April 2013 report by UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Professor Chrisof Heyns, and endorse its recommendations that call on all states to:

  • Place a national moratorium on lethal autonomous robotics. (Paragraph 118)
  • Declare – unilaterally and through multilateral fora – a commitment to abide by International Humanitarian Law and international human rights law in all activities surrounding robotic weapons and put in place and implement rigorous processes to ensure compliance at all stages of development. (Paragraph 119)
  • Commit to being as transparent as possible about internal weapons review processes, including metrics used to test robotic systems. States should at a minimum provide the international community with transparency regarding the processes they follow (if not the substantive outcomes) and commit to making the reviews as robust as possible. (Paragraph 120)
  • Participate in international debate and trans-governmental dialogue on the issue of lethal autonomous robotics and be prepared to exchange best practices with other States, and collaborate with the High Level Panel on lethal autonomous robotics. (Paragraph 121)

Act

There are many actions that you can take to support the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots’ objective of a pre-emptive ban on fully autonomous weapons. One way is to contact your government (via a letter to your foreign minister) to find out its position on fully autonomous weapons: Does it support the call for a moratorium or ban on robotics weapons systems that, once activated, can select and engage targets without further intervention by a human?
Here’s some other ways to take action: