Picture credit: Stop Killer Robots - Photo: 2013

Pre-Empting A New Generation of Killer Robotic Weapons

By Jayantha Dhanapala* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

KANDY (IDN) – In his farewell address on January 17, 1961 – at the height of the Cold War – President Eisenhower, speaking with the combined experience of a US Army General and a two-term elected President of the most powerful country in the world, warned his country of the danger of the military-industrial complex.

He said: “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

Over 50 years later we continue to live with the problem of more and more lethal weaponry being designed, manufactured and sold under Government financed contracts not only by the military-industrial complex in the USA but in other countries as well. Government contracts power much research in laboratories and many scientists are lured away from Universities to work on weapons manufacture. These weapons are then placed on the market and sold to countries ostensibly for defence purposes despite their heavy burden on economies especially in developing countries. The recent adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty in the UN General Assembly is a modest brake on this $70 billion trade.

Western democracies have been faced with increasing popular resistance to their men and women serving in their armed forces and being exposed to the horrors of combat. The elected leaders of democracies know that their soldiers coming back in body bags have a disastrous impact in terms of electoral politics. Thus, instead of preventing wars, new types of weapons are being designed and manufactured. They include ballistic missile defence systems falsely marketed as being impregnable and drones, which are unmanned aerial vehicles, spotting targets for faceless troops to launch their missiles from thousands of miles away. The horrible mistakes caused by the selection of wrong targets, as civilians including women and children are killed as in Afghanistan and Pakistan, are shrugged off as regrettable collateral damage.

The ‘boffins’ in arms laboratories are now engaged in a new and frightening phase of the arms race – the manufacture of fully robotic weapons. With these weapons the world will see completely autonomous weapons with a drastically reduced human participation on the battlefield. This will have huge consequences in terms of accountability and the implementation of international humanitarian law.

Alerted to this weird manifestation of the arms industry a number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) including the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs launched a campaign in London on April 23 to “Stop Killer Robots”. Their statement is as follows:

Campaign statement

Urgent action is needed to pre-emptively ban lethal robot weapons that would be able to select and attack targets without any human intervention, said a new campaign launched in London on April 23. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is a coordinated international coalition of non-governmental organizations concerned with the implications of fully autonomous weapons, also called “killer robots.”

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots calls for a pre-emptive and comprehensive ban on the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons. The prohibition should be achieved through an international treaty, as well as through national laws and other measures.

“Allowing life or death decisions on the battlefield to be made by machines crosses a fundamental moral line and represents an unacceptable application of technology,” said Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams of the Nobel Women’s Initiative. “Human control of autonomous weapons is essential to protect humanity from a new method of warfare that should never be allowed to come into existence.”

Over the past decade, the expanded use of unmanned armed vehicles or drones has dramatically changed warfare, bringing new humanitarian and legal challenges. Now rapid advances in technology are permitting the United States and other nations with high-tech militaries, including China, Israel, Russia, and the United Kingdom, to move toward systems that would give full combat autonomy to machines.

“Killer robots are not self-willed ‘Terminator’-style robots, but computer-directed weapons systems that once launched can identify targets and attack them without further human involvement,” said roboticist Noel Sharkey, chair of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control. “Using such weapons against an adaptive enemy in unanticipated circumstances and in an unstructured environment would be a grave military error. Computer controlled devices can be hacked, jammed, spoofed, or can be simply fooled and misdirected by humans.”

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots seeks to provide a coordinated civil society response to the multiple challenges that fully autonomous weapons pose to humanity. It is concerned about weapons that operate on their own without human supervision. The campaign seeks to prohibit taking a human out-of-the-loop with respect to targeting and attack decisions on the battlefield.

“The capability of fully autonomous weapons to choose and fire on targets on their own poses a fundamental challenge to the protection of civilians and to compliance with international law,” said Steve Goose, Arms Division director at Human Rights Watch. “Nations concerned with keeping a human in the decision-making loop should acknowledge that international rules on fully autonomous weapons systems are urgently needed and work to achieve them.”

The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Professor Christof Heyns, is due to deliver his report on lethal autonomous robotics to the second session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, starting May 27, 2013. The report is expected to contain recommendations for government action on fully autonomous weapons.

“We cannot afford to sleepwalk into an acceptance of these weapons. New military technologies tend to be put in action before the wider society can assess the implications, but public debate on such a change to warfare is crucial,” said Thomas Nash, Director of Article 36.  “A pre-emptive ban on lethal autonomous robots is both necessary and achievable, but only if action is taken now.”

Multiple concerns

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots believes that humans should not delegate the responsibility of making lethal decisions to machines. It has multiple moral, legal, technical, and policy concerns with the prospect of fully autonomous weapons, including:

  • Autonomous robots would lack human judgment and the ability to understand context. These human qualities are necessary to make complex legal choices on a dynamic battlefield, to distinguish adequately between soldiers and civilians, and to evaluate the proportionality of an attack. As a result, fully autonomous weapons would not meet the requirements of the laws of war.
  • The use of fully autonomous weapons would create an accountability gap as there is no clarity on who would be legally responsible for a robot’s actions: the commander, programmer, or one of the manufacturers of the many sensing, computing, and mechanical components? Without accountability, these parties would have less incentive to ensure robots did not endanger civilians and victims would be left unsatisfied that someone was punished for wrongful harm they experienced.
  • If fully autonomous weapons are deployed, other nations may feel compelled to abandon policies of restraint, leading to a destabilizing robotic arms race. Agreement is needed now to establish controls on these weapons before investments, technological momentum, and new military doctrine make it difficult to change course.
  • The proliferation of fully autonomous weapons could make resort to war and armed attacks more likely by reducing the possibility of military casualties.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots includes several NGOs associated with the successful efforts to ban landmines, cluster munitions, and blinding lasers. Its members collectively have a wide range of expertise in robotics and science, aid and development, human rights, humanitarian disarmament, international law and diplomacy, and the empowerment of women, children, and persons with disabilities. The campaign is building a worldwide network of civil society contacts in countries including Canada, Egypt, Japan, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Pakistan, United Kingdom, and the United States.

The Steering Committee is the principal leadership and decision-making body for of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and is comprised of nine NGOs: five international NGOs Human Rights Watch, International Committee for Robot Arms Control, Nobel Women’s Initiative, Pugwash Conferences on Science & World Affairs, and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and four national NGOs Article 36 (UK), Association for Aid and Relief Japan, Mines Action Canada, and IKV Pax Christi (The Netherlands).

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots was established by representatives of seven of these NGOs at a meeting in New York on October 19, 2012. It is an inclusive and diverse coalition open to NGOs, community groups, and professional associations that support the campaign’s call for a ban and are willing to undertake actions and activities in support of the campaign’s objectives. The campaign’s initial coordinator is Mary Wareham of Human Rights Watch.

On April 22, the Steering Committee of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots convened a day-long conference for 60 representatives from 33 NGOs from ten countries to discuss the potential harm that fully autonomous weapons could pose to civilians and to strategize on actions that could be taken at the national, regional, and international levels to ban the weapons.“ (End of Statement)

Wanted a code of ethics

Global public opinion must be alerted to this danger and should be mobilized to oppose this new category of weapons. Scientists especially should refuse to work on the design and manufacture these weapons. In terms of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto released on July 9, 1955, “Remember your humanity” assumes special relevance to the scientist in a context such as this.

The urgent need for an international code of ethics to govern scientists working in the defence sectors in all countries cannot be overemphasized. The inherent ambiguities in dual use technology are of course difficult and complex. Despite this, or precisely because of this, a code of ethics and a system of mentoring younger scientists can help to develop moral clarity where legal precision may be difficult to achieve.

Research and Development programmes in the weapons industry have to depend on scientists. We are faced with the threat of the Second Nuclear Age when the actual use of nuclear weapons is being contemplated. The Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) has produced new generations of conventional weapons and the possible development of new types of weapons including those based on new physical principles.

The need is for a code of ethics for application across national boundaries. Such a code would prohibit scientists from engaging in any activities that contravene existing treaties and conventions in the arms limitation and disarmament field. Where new weapons are contemplated the principles of humanitarian law and the protection of civilians must be a major guideline.

National scientific bodies such as Academies of Sciences and international scientific organizations must take responsibility for harmonizing codes of ethics and for their implementation. Plaints must be filed against a scientist for violating an agreed code of ethics and an inquiry must be instituted. If the verdict is guilty the withdrawal of professional membership and recognition must follow. It is only by maintaining the highest standards that we can ensure that scientists do not allow their skills to be subverted or exploited.

Where scientists, especially those in dictatorships, have been coerced, whistle-blowing should be encouraged within the code of ethics as part of our common responsibility to protect humanity and human rights. With the functioning of the International Criminal Court it would follow automatically that any scientist found guilty in that forum should automatically be struck off the rolls of his profession.

*Jayantha Dhanapala is a former Ambassador of Sri Lanka and a former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations who is currently President of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. [IDN-InDepthNews – April 23, 2013]

Image credit: Stop Killer Robots

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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