Ban Autonomous Armed Robots!

The rapid development of autonomy in robotics — the ability of robots to make decisions independently of human involvement — means we are on the cusp of a technological revolution in the way weapons select and attack targets. While it may seem like science fiction, governments and arms manufacturers are spending millions of dollars on researching ways to enable digital weapons to be able to sense, identify and destroy people, vehicles and buildings with minimal or nonexistent human input (e.g. this automated turret from a South Korean manufacturer and attempts to build an “automated kill zone” along the Gaza border. The US Air Force has identified developing autonomous targeting for unmanned aircraft as a strategic priority).

Such systems are essentially landmines of the information age. The landmine itself was simply an “explosive trap”, updating a long military traditional of booby traps and defensive spikes with the technologies of the Industrial Revolution — modern chemical, mechanical and electrical innovations. Similarly, the fully autonomous armed robot is a digital, artificially intelligent, GPS-enabled and sometimes mobile landmine — killing and maiming without direct human command and control. The autonomous armed robot is to the landmine as my smartphone is to my analog watch. Moreover, just as landmines were developed in the core of the international system and then became the cheap, mass-produced weapon-of-choice of militias and guerilla movements all over the world, the cost of robotic systems is plummeting. It will not be long, I believe, before a wide range of state and non-state actors are able to access and use autonomous armed robots. Wired magazine has reported that Iraqi insurgents are developing their own robotic systems.

While millions of dollars and legions of scientists are engaged in developing these weapons, few people from the humanitarian, disarmament and peacebuilding communities have paid much attention to the potential human ramifications. As Brookings Institution researcher PW Singer worries:

As our weapons are designed to have ever more autonomy, deeper questions arise. Can the new armaments reliably separate friend from foe? What laws and ethical codes apply? What are we saying when we send out unmanned ma­chines to fight for us? What is the “message” that those on the other side receive? Ultimately, how will humans remain masters of weapons that are immeasurably faster and more “intelligent” than they ­are?

In a recent report on “the challenges of contemporary armed conflicts“, the International Committee of the Red Cross, called on the global community to consider the “fundamental legal, ethical and societal issues” raised by autonomous armed robots “before such systems are developed or deployed.”

In this post on the website of Article 36 yesterday, Richard Moyes, Thomas Nash and I called for an international ban on fully autonomous weapons of any kind, whether they are ‘analog’ anti-vehicular mines or sophisticated armed robots. Without human control, there is no way for weapons to effectively discriminate between combatants and civilians, making fully autonomous weapons a violation of international humanitarian law.

For further discussion on the potential regulation of fully autonomous armed robots, visit the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC) and read the excellent academic groundwork laid by Noel Sharkey, Peter Asaro, Robert Sparrow, Jurgen Altman, PW Singer and Gary Marchant et al.

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~ by Matthew Bolton on 6 March 2012.

5 Responses to “Ban Autonomous Armed Robots!”

  1. Thank you for this post. Keep up the great work.

    • Thanks Noel! And thank you for the important foundations you have laid in this effort, I really admire your research.

  2. […] For further information on autonomous armed robots and the nascent humanitarian movement to control …. Share this:StumbleUponDiggRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  3. […] of behavior, it is only a small step to the automation of target selection. This technology, which already exists, turns drones, underwater robotic torpedoes and military ground robots into mobile, digital mines. […]

  4. […] Mines, however, are becoming outdated weapons. They are analog, unnetworked, static. They are to the emerging class of high-tech weapons as the slide rule is to the smartphone. The rapid development of autonomy in robotics – the ability of robots to make decisions independently of human involvement — means we are on the cusp of a technological revolution in the way weapons select and attack targets. Weapons developers have already designed and/or produced aerial, underwater and land-based military robots capable of operating independent of human involvement — killing and maiming without direct human command and control. The fully autonomous armed robot is a digital, artificially intelligent, GPS-enabled and sometimes m…. […]

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