Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Thanks to U.S. and UK obstruction, talks over autonomous weapons at UN general assembly may be getting stuck. (Photo: Miguel Bernas/flickr/cc)

As Experts Push for 'Killer Robot' Ban, UK and US Stand in the Way

"If there is not a pre-emptive ban on the high-level autonomous weapons then once the genie is out of the bottle it will be extremely difficult to get it back in."

Nadia Prupis

The U.S. and UK are undermining attempts by the United Nations to negotiate over the future of autonomous weapons—or "killer robots"—talks which, if delayed further, could come too late to prevent so-called "robot wars."

Technology and human rights experts have been pushing for the UN to preemptively ban machines that can kill on the battlefield without human operators, citing a greater risk to civilian life and a broader lack of accountability for military officials. But Christof Heyns, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, said Tuesday that the negotiation process is in danger of getting "stuck."

"A lot of money is going into development and people will want a return on their investment," Heyns told the Guardian. "If there is not a pre-emptive ban on the high-level autonomous weapons then once the genie is out of the bottle it will be extremely difficult to get it back in."

As the UN General Assembly negotiates an agreement between nations on autonomous weapons, U.S. and UK representatives are reportedly pushing for weaker rules that would only prohibit future technology, but not killer robots developed during the protracted negotiating period. Such delays would also mean that existing semi-autonomous prototypes—like the Phalanx close-in weapons system (CIWS) in the U.S., the Iron Dome in Israel, and the SGR-1 sentry robot in South Korea—would not be subject to the ban.

Proponents of killer robots say they will help reduce military casualties in war. But as a report published earlier this year by Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School's International Human Rights Clinic argues, such tools bring too many moral and legal risks to justify their continued development. Those risks include higher potential for violation of international law and a lack of accountability for war crimes committed by robots.

What's more, proliferation of autonomous weapons would make a global arms race "inevitable," experts—including physicist Stephen Hawking, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, and Tesla CEO Elon Musk—said in July.

Noel Sharkey, a professor of artificial intelligence and co-founder of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, is very concerned about where things are headed.

"Governments," he explained to the Guardian, "are continuing to test autonomous weapons systems, for example with the X49B, which is a fighter jet that can fly on its own, and there are contracts already out for swarms of autonomous gun ships. So if we are tied up [discussing a ban] for a long time then the word ‘emerging’ is worrying."

"The concern that exercises me most is that people like the U.S. government keep talking about gaining a military edge," Sharkey said. "So the talk is of using large numbers—swarms—of robots."

If the UN is unable to close a deal on the future of autonomous weapons, countries would still have the option of crafting their own agreements, which is how the Convention on Cluster Munitions came about. But experts say it's unlikely that major weapon-producing nations would agree to such a treaty.

As of now, only five UN member states—Cuba, Pakistan, Egypt, Ecuador, and the Vatican—have backed a ban on killer robots.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Please select a donation method:

Physicians Group Documents 'Severe' Health and Human Rights Impacts of US Expulsion Policy

"With each passing day, the Biden administration is trampling on its professed commitment to science-based policymaking and a humane immigration system."

Jake Johnson ·

As Delta Wreaks Havoc, Biden Faces Growing Pressure to Force Big Pharma to Share Vaccine Recipes

"Millions of people have lost their lives waiting for such desperately needed action."

Jake Johnson ·

At Times Square Rally, Activists Demand Congress 'Tax the Rich'

"If billionaires can afford to go to space, they can afford to pay their fair share."

Brett Wilkins ·

'Recess Can Wait': 23 Groups Demand Senate Stay in DC to Pass For the People Act

"It would be unconscionable for the Senate to break for recess without addressing the ongoing assaults on our democratic systems happening across the nation."

Jessica Corbett ·

Nina Turner Primary Opponent Shontel Brown Facing Felony Ethics Probe

"This is certainly a shocking revelation and it raises very serious ethical and legal questions," says Kara Turrentine, Turner's deputy campaign manager.

Brett Wilkins ·