Human Rights Watch (www.hrw.org) has released a report that states that governments should pre-emptively ban fully autonomous weapons, because of the danger they pose to civilians in armed conflict. These futuristic weapons, sometimes called “killer robots,” will self-assess danger and risk, and can choose to fire on targets without human intervention. The 50-page report, “Losing Humanity: The Case Against Killer Robots”, outlines concerns about these fully autonomous weapons, which inherently lack the human attributes that provide legal, and non-legal, checks on the killing of civilians. In addition, the difficulties in holding anyone accountable for harm caused by the weapons, would weaken the law’s power. Steve Goose, Arms Division director at Human Rights Watch, said, “Giving machines the power to decide who lives and dies on the battlefield, would take technology too far. Human control of robotic warfare is essential to minimizing civilian deaths and injuries.”
“Losing Humanity” is the first major publication about fully autonomous weapons, ever published by a nongovernmental organization, and is based on extensive research into the law, technology, and ethics of these proposed weapons. It is jointly published by Human Rights Watch, and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic. Human Rights Watch and the International Human Rights Clinic have called for an international treaty that would absolutely prohibit the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons. They also called on individual nations to pass laws, and adopt policies as important measures to prevent development, production, and use of such weapons at the domestic level. Fully autonomous weapons theoretically do not yet exist, and major powers, including the United States, have not made a decision to deploy them. But, high-tech militaries are developing, or have already deployed precursors, such as ‘drone’ planes, that illustrate the push toward greater autonomy for machines on and over battlefields. The United States is a leader in this technology’s development, but China, Germany, Israel, South Korea, Russia, and the United Kingdom are hot on their heels. Many experts predict that full autonomy for weapons could be achieved at the outset 20 to 30 years, and probably much, much sooner.
Goose said, “It is essential to stop the development of killer robots before they show up in national arsenals. As countries become more invested in this technology, it will become harder to persuade them to give it up.” Human Rights Watch and the Harvard clinic said that fully autonomous weapons could not meet the requirements of international humanitarian law. They would be unable to distinguish adequately between soldiers and civilians on the battlefield, or apply the human judgment necessary to evaluate the proportionality of an attack, such as whether civilian harm outweighs military advantage. Fully autonomous weapons cannot show human compassion for victims, and autocrats could direct them against their own people. While replacing human troops with machines could save military lives, it could also make going to war easier, which would shift the burden of death from armed conflict onto civilians.
While most militaries maintain that, for the immediate future, humans will retain some oversight over the actions of weaponized robots, the effectiveness of that oversight is questionable, Human Rights Watch and the Harvard clinic said. Moreover, military statements have left the door open to full autonomy in the future. “Action is needed now, before killer robots cross the line from science fiction to feasibility,” Goose said.
Pull the Plug on Killer Robots