SinoScan UK newsletter article

Killer robots are a pressing concern. Are the UK's leaders ducking the issue?

SinoScan UK newsletter article

Killer robots are a pressing concern. Are the UK's leaders ducking the issue?

How seriously should we take the threat presented by killer robots? A new report from Human Rights Watch shows that, while other countries are taking it very seriously indeed, UK leaders may be fudging the issue.

Over the last two decades, autonomous weapons systems have emerged from the milieu of sci-fi movies like Terminator and Hardware to take their place on real-life battlefields. The Gulf and Iraq Wars saw widespread acceptance of the use of military ‘drones’, aircraft and land vehicles piloted remotely by operators who remain secure from any harm. Autonomous weapons remove those human pilots from the picture altogether, leaving the computer systems which operate the machines to decide their own targets.

Such weapons are rapidly approaching real-world deployment. Earlier this month, America’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) concluded its AlphaDogfight simulation exercises, which have demonstrated that AI pilots can consistently defeat experienced human opponents. The trials are a precursor to the agency’s rollout of the Air Combat Evolution (ACE) programme, which aims at AI-controlled combat flight.

Simpler, ground-based weapons capable of identifying and tracking flesh-and-blood opponents have already been deployed in the Arabic Peninsula and Korean Demilitarised Zone. To date, these systems have required human confirmation before firing… but fully autonomous deployments would seem to be a matter of time.

“Stopping Killer Robots: Country Positions on Banning Fully Autonomous Weapons and Retaining Human Control,” a 55-page report from the influential campaign group Human Rights Watch, reviews the policies of nations across the world on this pressing issue.

Over the last decade, 97 countries have made public statements on autonomous weaponry. Almost all of them have stated their belief that human judgment must continue to direct military decisionmaking. Nearly a third have joined calls for autonomous weapons to be banned outright, and a large majority have spoken in support of calls for a new treaty mandating human control over the use of lethal force.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has been at the centre of these efforts. He is seeking to build consensus around the addition of a new protocol to the Convention on Conventional Weapons prohibiting the use of autonomous weapons, which he refers to as “morally repugnant and politically unacceptable”. Countries following his lead include China, Mexico, Pakistan, Iraq, Argentina, Brazil, Austria, Colombia and Uganda. However, according to the Human Rights Watch team, a small number of military superpowers — notably the U.S. and Russia — have “firmly rejected” Guterres’ proposed regulation.

While the UK government has not joined this minority, neither has it spoken up in favour of an outright ban. The report’s authors note that, while official UK policy favours the retention of “human oversight”, the UK has its own “autonomous solutions” in development.

They clearly regard this position as fence-sitting. “Removing human control from the use of force is now widely regarded as a grave threat to humanity that, like climate change, deserves urgent multilateral action,” said Mary Wareham, director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch and coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. “An international ban treaty is the only effective way to deal with the serious challenges raised by fully autonomous weapons.”

As more aspects of human life become autonomous, we are interested to see how this issue develops and what stance the UK will eventually take on autonomous weaponry in the coming years.

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