Stopping killer robots

No longer confined to science fiction, the use of autonomous robots in a military context has become a very real possibility in recent years. International Innovationcaught up with Dr Peter Asaro, co-Founder of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, at the UN’s Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), where steps were taken towards a treaty on the use of lethal autonomous weapons.

How imminent is the threat posed by autonomous lethal robots on the battlefield?

Systems capable of autonomous targeting and firing of weapons are in development, and could be available to militaries in a few years. Of course, you could make crude autonomous weapons today. That is why it is important to move toward a pre-emptive ban now, before states acquire them and refuse to give them up.

Are these so-called ‘killer robots’ distinct from unmanned drones?

Yes. Unmanned drones are controlled by humans remotely, and the humans decide which targets to attack. Autonomous weapons would use sensors and algorithms to select and attack targets on their own. Of course, there are next-generation autonomous combat drones like the X47B and the Taranis that have no remote operators, and could be the first autonomous weapons, depending on how they find targets.

What is the main point of contention being addressed by the Convention?

There is broad agreement among the 120 countries of the CCW that there should always be meaningful human control over the use of weapons. The main point of contention is what exactly that means, and whether a prohibition on autonomous weapons is necessary, or whether we should allow them to be developed under some set of guidelines.

Read the full interview at International Innovation.