'These Will Be Weapons of Mass Destruction': Warnings About Killer Robots After UN Talks

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'These Will Be Weapons of Mass Destruction': Warnings About Killer Robots After UN Talks

While support builds for an outright ban of autonomous weapons, powerful nations with large technology industries are resistant to imposing expansive limitations

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Tech experts and human rights advocates issued new warnings about lethal autonomous weapons as the first U.N. meeting on killer robots took place this week in Geneva. (Photo: Miguel Bernas/flickr/cc)

As the United Nations' first formal meeting about killer robots came to a close on Friday, tech experts and critics continued to warn about autonomous weapons and called for more urgent action to curb the threat they pose.

"These will be weapons of mass destruction. I am actually quite confident that we will ban these weapons," he added. "My only concern is whether [nations] have the courage of conviction to do it now, or whether we will have to wait for people to die first."
—Toby Walsh, University of New South Wales

In Geneva this week, a Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) group of governmental experts on lethal autonomous weapons systems gathered to discuss growing demands that the global community establish limitations on the development of robotic weapons.

As artificial intelligence technology has advanced, human rights organizations, advocacy groups, military leaders, lawmakers, and tech experts, and engineers such Tesla CEO Elon Musk have all expressed concerns about these fast-evolving machines.

"Militaries around the world and defense companies are sinking a lot of money" into developing weapons that can autonomously select targets and kill humans, Mary Wareham of the arms division at Human Rights Watch (HRW) told AFP. "Countries do not have time... to waste just talking about this subject."

"These will be weapons of mass destruction," warned Toby Walsh, an expert on artificial intelligence at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

"I am actually quite confident that we will ban these weapons," he added. "My only concern is whether [nations] have the courage of conviction to do it now, or whether we will have to wait for people to die first."

Boston Dynamics—an American robotic company owned by Alphabet, Google's parent company—triggered a social media frenzy on Thursday when it revealed video of its Atlas humanoid robot doing backflips. Although Atlas is not designed as a weapon, the video served as a reminder of the degree to which robotics technology has advanced, causing some views to share concerns about the threat robots could pose to humans in the future.

Amid discussions in Geneva this week, Brazil, Iraq, and Uganda joined the growing list of 22 nations that are calling for an outright ban on fully autonomous lethal weapons, according to a tally (pdf) by the umbrella advocacy group Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. However, many others—particularly those with large militaries and major tech industries—are resistant to imposing too many limitations. 

The United States, for example, said it was "premature" to develop a definition of such weapons, and "said autonomous weapons could help improve guidance of missiles and bombs against military targets, thereby 'reducing the likelihood of inadvertently striking civilians,'" according to the Associated Press

As the meeting ended Friday, representatives from more than 80 countries approved a final report—which is expected to be published on the meeting's webpage—with recommendations for future discussions. However, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which sent a few dozen campaigners to Geneva for the talks, said the report, in effect, recommends "a roll-over of the unambitious mandate to continue deliberations in 2018."

"The 2018 GGE meetings should be action-oriented and focus on discussions between states," the campaign said in a statement after the meeting concluded. The group continued:

In 2018, states at the GGE should focus on considering characteristics or elements of a working definition on lethal autonomous weapons systems. It is time for experts from governments to make explicit where they draw the line in increasing autonomy in weapon systems and determine how to retain meaningful human control over weapons systems.

The campaign urges states to hold at least two separate GGE meetings in 2018, including during the first half of the year. The GGE should pave the way to international negotiations on a legally binding instrument. States Parties should then agree to a formal negotiating mandate at the end of 2018, and conclude a new protocol by the end of 2019—a protocol that bans the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons.

"The bottom line is that governments are not moving fast enough," Steven Goose, HRW executive director of arms told the Associated Press. Goose, whose organization is part of the campaign, said a treaty by the end of 2019 is "the kind of timeline we think this issue demands."

Next week, states will reconvene for the CCW meeting of high contracting parties—there are 123 state parties and 5 signatories—to determine the CCW's next steps with regard to killer robots. Ambassador Amandeep Singh Gill of India, who chaired this week's meeting, said those who participated have already agreed to return for a follow-up discussion next year.

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