Battle Bots

How the World Should Prepare Itself for Robotic Warfare

Afghan residents look at a robot that is searching for IEDs (improvised explosive devices) during a road clearance patrol by the U.S. army in Logar province, eastern Afghanistan November 23, 2011. Umit Bektas / Reuters

People living today find their lives bookended by two eras of weaponry: nuclear arms and the emerging threat of lethal autonomous weapons. On the one hand, nuclear Armageddon is still a real risk as states fail to live up to their legal obligations to disarm and dispose of their nuclear stockpiles. Lethal autonomous robotic weaponry, on the other hand, offers a glimpse of war’s future—and few if any rules govern the use of drones, a precursor technology for future autonomous weapons. Globally agreed norms and rules must be created and strengthened throughout all areas of weapons proliferation so that future generations are safeguarded from large-scale violence. To set realistic and reliable international norms for dangerous and new weapons, states must establish the necessary conditions for global cooperation. If world leaders want a less violent world, they must set the guidelines and improve the current international order.

Two recent UN meetings dealt with the pressing concerns of nuclear arsenals and future weapons: the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) that ended in May, and the Meeting of Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems in Geneva this past April. Each event focused on a distinct threat to global security: the former on the risk of nuclear war and the latter on the emerging risk of lethal autonomous military robotic technology.

Despite the importance of these issues, both meetings ended inconclusively: 70 years after nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear proliferation still threatens global security. The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty turns 47 this year, but states continue to rely on its outdated legal architecture toward this aging technology with no new real disarmament in sight. At the same time, the United States and other nations are pursuing lethal robotic technologies that can provide autonomous support in warfare—creations that might be seen on the battlefield in the not-so-distant future given the capabilities of current prototypes. Given the proliferation of drones and their importance

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