Autonomous killer bots are underway, can we stop them?

By Shira Jeczmien

Updated May 16, 2020 at 10:59 AM

Reading time: 2 minutes

The scene is of a fighter plane, an army submarine or tank operating as usual. The only difference is that aboard them are no human beings at all. This image isn’t from a sci-fi movie or even a far away future, instead Autonomous Weapons Systems or Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) were the focal point of countless discussions at the UN last week when member countries met in Geneva at the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).

The convention’s aim is to bring together all members of the United Nations in a constructive and hopefully productive agreement to ban the use of automated weapons controlled by AI on an international scale. Now the case to ban autonomous weapons of all shapes and functionalities was first brought to the CCW back in 2013, when a coalition of nine NGOs under the name of Campaign to Stop Killer Robots began raising this growing concern and campaigning for the absolute and immediate outlawing of such military developments.

In last week’s convention and five years after the relentless campaigning against these lethal and highly controversial weapons began, 121 countries have agreed “that new regulations are needed to ensure meaningful human control of all weapons systems” as reported by Forbes. However successful this development is—which it is—concrete steps towards an international agreement to halt any developments in this field are yet to take place.

The U.S., China, Russia, Israel and Australia have previously opposed the negotiation and blocked a 2019 mandate on the matter as they then argued that it was too early on in the development of this new weapon branch, while also claiming that there are military advantages to such innovation. However in last week’s convention, all countries except for Russia agreed to continue the deliberations on the future of autonomous weapons in next year’s convention—unfortunately, as the CCW is based on a consensual structure of all members, Russia’s opposition had the voting power to block negotiations advancing further.

What such an opposition has caused is a detrimental slowing down of negotiation processes, which are already at a snail pace compared to that of hi-tech state military development and simply allows more time in a lawless grey zone for these nations to keep on developing their technology.

In response to the countries in opposition to continuing negotiation around the banning of such weapons, the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, said that “The impacts of new technologies on warfare are a direct threat to our common responsibility to guarantee peace and security. The weaponization of artificial intelligence is a growing concern.”

It is yet unclear where the coming years will lead us in the development of autonomous weapons. What is transparent however is that powerful nations are striving to lead the race, with Putin stating that “Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world” already in 2017. All we can do is continue to campaign against this move while supporting the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and their cause to stop the development of automated military weapons.

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