Why the world needs to regulate autonomous weapons, and soon

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
April 27, 2018

The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) at the UN has just concluded a second round of meetings on lethal autonomous weapons systems in Geneva, under the auspices of what is known as a Group of Governmental Experts. Both the urgency and significance of the discussions in that forum have been heightened by the rising concerns over artificial intelligence (AI) arms races and the increasing use of digital technologies to subvert democratic processes. Some observers have expressed concerns that the CCW discussions might be hopeless or futile, and that no consensus is emerging from them. Those concerns miss the significance of what has already happened and the opportunities going forward.

For some observers, the concerns over an AI arms race have overshadowed concerns about autonomous weapons. Some have even characterized the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots as aiming to “ban artificial intelligence” itself. I do not agree with these views, and argue in a forthcoming paper for I/S: A Journal of Law and Policy for the Information Society that various scholars and media use the term “AI arms race” to mean very different and even incompatible things, ranging from economic competition, to automated cyberwarfare, to embedding AI in weapons. As a result, it does not really make sense to talk about “an AI arms race” as a singular phenomenon to be addressed by a single policy. Moreover, the discussions taking place at the UN are focused on autonomy in weapons, which is only partially related to larger issues of an AI arms race—although establishing norms on the automated control of conventional weapons, such as meaningful human control, could certainly advance discussion in other areas, such as cyberwarfare and AI ethics.

The central issue in the CCW discussions over lethal autonomous weapons is the necessity for human control over what the International Committee of the Red Cross has called the “critical functions” of targeting and engagement in attacks. AI could be used in various ways by militaries, including in weapons systems, and even in the critical functions of targeting and engagement. The issue is not what kind of technology is used or its sophistication, but whether and how the authority to target and engage is delegated to automated processes, and what implications this has for human responsibility and accountability, as well as human rights and human dignity.

Read the full piece at Bulletin Atomic