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​Terminator judgment day? UN mulls preemptive ‘killer robot’ ban

Published time: May 14, 2014 14:11
AFP Photo/Bertrand Guay

AFP Photo/Bertrand Guay

The first multinational discussions on the rising specter of ‘autonomous killer robots’ is being hosted by the United Nations to consider whether the global community should ban the new technology – before it’s too late.

Acting Director-General of the UN Office in Geneva Michael Møller said the time to take action against killer robots is now.

“All too often international law only responds to atrocities and suffering once it has happened,” he said. “You have the opportunity to take pre-emptive action and ensure that the ultimate decision to end life remains firmly under human control."

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, an international coalition of non-governmental organizations, successfully petitioned the UN to consider the question of ‘autonomous weapons systems’ in a Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) meeting.

One of the founders of the NGO, Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams, is urging a ban on “autonomous robots,” which the US Pentagon defines as weapons that "once activated, can select and engage targets without further intervention by a human operator."

“Talking about the problems posed by these future weapons is a good place to start, but a ban needs to be put in place urgently if we are to avoid a future where compassionless robots decide who to kill on the battlefield,” Williams said, as quoted by Forbes.

Williams teamed up with 19 other Nobel Peace laureates to demand a ban on the lethal technology. At the same time, Human Rights Watch (HRW), another participant of the Campaign, released its own report detailing the potential threats posed by machines that have no ability to implement “human judgment” in the heat of the battle.

“In policing, as well as war, human judgment is critically important to any decision to use a lethal weapon,” said Steve Goose, arms division director at Human Rights Watch, before the talks. “Governments need to say no to fully autonomous weapons for any purpose and to preemptively ban them now, before it is too late.”

Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

HRW also warned of the moral and legal implications in the event that an autonomous robot fails – as will eventually happen - to carry out its assigned military task, with catastrophic results for innocent civilians.

“Replacing human soldiers with ‘killer robots’ might save military lives, but at the cost of making war even more deadly for civilians,” wrote Bonnie Docherty, senior researcher in the arms division at HRW. “To preempt this situation, governments should adopt an international prohibition on the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons.”

“These weapons should be stopped before they appear in national arsenals and in combat.”

Despite the potential risk posed by the technology, many governments remain ambiguous on how they would address the issue.

The UK’s Foreign Office, for example, told Amnesty International in a letter last June that while it was “committed to upholding international humanitarian law,” it would not commit to a course of action that might deny the Armed Forces “legitimate and effective capabilities.”

At the same time, the United States has demonstrated the dark side of autonomous weapon systems with its international drone program, which has led to the death of hundreds of civilians.

Oversight on the use of drone warfare in other government agencies, like the CIA, remains tenuous at best, while the US government, as well as other countries, including Israel and China, regularly exports these weapons to other nations.

Human rights groups are now concerned what will happen once the technology for killer robots is perfected.

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