Beware the Killer Robots

Inside the Debate over Autonomous Weapons

At an event for the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots in London, April 2013 Luke MacGregor / Courtesy Reuters

More and more, machines are waging war. Unmanned craft conduct reconnaissance and serve as mechanical beasts of burden over inhospitable terrain, and other automated systems assist medics and defuse explosives. But when it comes to weaponized systems, governments have so far kept humans as the operators. Now militaries worldwide are taking steps to develop armed autonomous robots with the capacity to use lethal force on their own. According to a U.N. report, Israel, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States have developed weapons systems with various degrees of autonomy. Since 2010, for example, armed sentry robots with autonomous sensors and targeting systems have patrolled South Korea’s demilitarized zone. Although humans are still behind the controls, military doctrine leaves open the possibility of fully autonomous weapons in the future. The U.S. Department of Defense’s Directive on Autonomous Weapons permits under-secretaries of defense, in certain cases, to bend its rule that weapons remain under meaningful human control. And the machines are spreading: India is the latest nation to openly establish a program to develop fully autonomous robotic soldiers.

The prospect of gradually outsourcing kill decisions has made a growing number of robotics experts, ethicists, and, now, a transnational network of human security campaigners and governments uneasy. Concerned scientists formed the International Committee for Robot Arms Control in 2009. In 2012, NGOs began expressing concern, and Human Rights Watch released a report on the perils of fully autonomous weapons. And this past April, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots launched on the steps of Parliament in London. Endorsed by Nobel laureate and renowned anti–land mine campaigner Jody Williams, it quickly grew into a coalition of over 30 nongovernmental organizations. The United Nations has since issued a report calling for a moratorium on the development of lethal autonomous robots.

This new movement is unique among disarmament campaigns, since the organizations are lobbying against a class of weapons that has not yet been widely deployed or shown to cause massive humanitarian harm. Most

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