The Campaign to Kill ‘Killer Robots’ Gains Steam

A global movement is gaining traction in its effort to ban 'killer robots' that are able to target designated enemies on their own

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A slew of reports over the past two weeks detailing cases of U.S. armed drones killing civilians signaled a new wave of outrage over the unregulated use of drones by the U.S. There was one report from the U.N., another from Human Rights Watch (HRW) and one from Amnesty International. The uproar — and the sense that Washington has done little to make more transparent its use of drones — culminated in a debate on Friday at the U.N.

But a parallel movement has emerged to make sure that a different and perhaps more terrifying technology never makes it this far.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is a coalition of weapons monitors and human-rights groups leading an effort, formally since April, to establish an international ban on fully autonomous lethal weapons. Dubbed (by opponents) “killer robots,” it’s a technology that can kill targets (humans) without any human input. Whereas drones today have someone somewhere remotely determining where and when to fire, a fully autonomous air, land or sea weapon could be making the decisions on its own.

It sounds like the stuff of sci-fi, but the technology is well within reach given existing weaponry. The U.S. Navy’s X-47B, a Northrop Grumman–developed drone, has taken off and landed on an aircraft carrier — one of the hardest maneuvers in aviation — entirely on its own, and it would only be a short step to add missiles to its weapons bay. In South Korea, a Samsung subsidiary designed — several years ago already — a stationary robot sentry that sits along the demilitarized zone and can identify and fire at a target on its own. It’s linked up with a human operator for now.

Some critics say giving nonhuman technology the ability to decide if a human lives or dies is simply morally reprehensible — on the same level as chemical and nuclear weapons. They also say there are just too many uncertainties in the machines’ circuitry. What if a killer robot malfunctions and begins firing at random? What if it’s hacked? How quickly will the technology proliferate to rival states and nonstate actors like extremist militants? And who exactly is held legally accountable when a killer robot attacks?

The campaign released a statement earlier this month signed by some 272 computer-science experts from 37 countries supporting a ban on development “given the limitations and unknown future risks of autonomous robot weapons technology.”

“We are concerned about the potential of robots to undermine human responsibility in decisions to use force, and to obscure accountability for the consequences,” the statement reads.

Still, the U.S. military is loath to rule out development of a new technology. Last year, days after Human Rights Watch released a report calling for a ban, the Department of Defense issued an ambiguous directive on autonomous weapons that restricts, but does not rule out their use in the field for the time being. It remains the only government policy on the technology, and, unsurprisingly, few countries have formal policies on the issue. But advocates say the weapon could, down the line, in fact become a crucial tool for saving lives.

“While a pre-emptive ban may seem like the safest path, it is unnecessary and dangerous,” wrote law professors Matthew Waxman and Kenneth Anderson, both members of the Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law. “If the goal is to reduce suffering and protect human lives, a ban may be counterproductive. It is quite possible that autonomous machine decisionmaking may, at least in some contexts, reduce risks to civilians by making targeting decisions more precise and firing decisions more controlled.”

Opponents point out that a pre-emptive weapons ban is not unprecedented. In 1995, parties to the U.N.’s Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) added a protocol banning blinding lasers. Leading up to that ban, the U.S. was against it before it was for it — after considering the potential for mass proliferation, recalled Stephen Goose, the director of the arms division at HRW. The U.S. change of heart was enough to generate the necessary support.

For now, the U.S. says it doesn’t support an international ban. But representatives at the U.N. met over the potential threat of automated weapons earlier this week, and France, which chairs the next meeting of the CCW in November, has pledged to put the topic of killer robots on the agenda. The U.S. will conspicuously be there.

“It really reinforces that governments and militaries understand that this is something of real concern,” Goose says. “Them sitting down and talking about this is a very good thing.”

61 comments
Marc Rod
Marc Rod

Yea, hahahooha.. let's send robots to flatten villages and destroy societies, it keeps 'our boys' out of harm's way!

Marc Rod
Marc Rod

Then we would have to ban all militaries.

Marc Rod
Marc Rod

At 8:11 PM on 19 April 2011, the artificially intelligent Skynet global digital defense network becomes self-aware and triggers a worldwide nuclear disaster.

willis_fitnurbut
willis_fitnurbut

“One thing is for certain: there is no stopping them; the ants will soon be here. And I for one welcome our new insect overlords. I’d like to remind them that as a trusted TV personality, I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground sugar caves.”

TG28
TG28

I can think of a few places around the world that this would be great for....

somervillechangeling
somervillechangeling

I'm all for banning killer robots, except for HK-47. He can be reprogrammed to hunt Sith instead of Jedi and his snarky comments are just too good to miss.


But on a serious note, the planners who come up with autonomous robots that can make life or death decisions have no moral compass. War is rarely just, but sometimes it is necessary. When the conscience of a soldier is taken out of the equation, then war moves one step closer to a video game. For all the soldiers who abused our self declared enemies in Afghanistan, there have been soldiers who risked their lives and their mission because they were moral and would not kill civilians. 


Personally, I'm a pacifist. I'd rather follow Jesus and turn the other cheek than grab an AR-15. This world is not my ultimate home but I want to see it as free of war, as free of violence as possible. If violence is imagined, then let it be fighting orcs on the way to seeing the ring tossed in Mount Doom, or let it be a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Let it not be imagined in our own time and place.

Keefe Roedersheimer
Keefe Roedersheimer

This is so sad! I for one welcome our nonhuman sentient companions, hardly anyone seems to think they are good and for things other than violence.

Sarah Jasper
Sarah Jasper

SkyNet is going to be a real thing if we don't watch out!! These people are modern-day John Connors!!!!!!!!

Martin McNickle
Martin McNickle

Who do you think invented the drones? Or war, for that matter. Grow up.

LCharleneSines
LCharleneSines

I am NOT in favor OF any machine making the decision to take a life. Are you kidding me? Whats next 20 questions from a  machine?  A.I. is NOt developed enough IF their first "RELATIONSHIP" with humanity is to kill humanity to me that is stupidity

JasonDowd
JasonDowd

Personally, I am in favor of killer robots. Knowing that we are developing these robots to kill autonomously will likely encourage us to make sure the robots make this decision on the side of extreme caution. Quite possibly more cautiously than human soldiers do.

Alex Yalen
Alex Yalen

When in doubt, attack the other person's intelligence.

DarylBrunt
DarylBrunt

They may as well add this one to the list. "Make the % of biological employees set in stone for all companies". What do you think will happen when automation takes off and human employee levels are lowered. Eventually it will be overly damaging for society.

Mihai Stanescu
Mihai Stanescu

why would you ban that? wow. they're kinda right though cause they're thinking that that way whoever owns the robots will consider 2 times before going to war instead of 1 time if they have the robots. It's a heavy subject...

Robert J. Williamson
Robert J. Williamson

No they prefer that human guide these weapons and make the decisions. These will have on board computers that can make the decision to kill humans without human input. They are literally autonomous killer robots flying around killing humans at will. If you don't see the problem with such tech then you cannot think at all.

Robert J. Williamson
Robert J. Williamson

These are fully autonomous i.e.the robots themselves will fly around and decide what to kill. There will be no human input whatsoever. A computer program will decide to murder human beings. I think it is a disgusting idea. Does america value human life so low that they will not even assign a person to make the decision to murder people on the ground.

Omid Khosravani
Omid Khosravani

What if THEY also show you their Terminators? Then we may have another big war. And how about broadcasting it on the TV so that it can make your lonely life on a Saturday night more exciting?

Grady Loggins
Grady Loggins

What why? Is it not better than putting our young men in harms way. Or is it because it makes killing way to easy?

Harold Goffeney
Harold Goffeney

We have androids. Is too late they have them mixed in the population.

Ali Tekin
Ali Tekin

özellikle Türkçe yazıyorum, çoğunluk anlamasın diye. ve diyorum ki; en iyi amerikalı gebertilmiş olandır.

Drew Waller
Drew Waller

do we have any FULLY autonomous drones? How autonomous is fully autonomous?

Robert Sprung
Robert Sprung

Let's show some foreigners The Terminator, and then let them choose

Jay Valencia
Jay Valencia

Drones are the real life Judge Dredd of our generation-- judge, jury, and executioner. It's a comic book come to life-- how can that not be cool?! :)

Max Pickard
Max Pickard

That's cute. Meanwhile in labs behind closed doors funded by DARPA...

Liam Straughan
Liam Straughan

Humans have logic and compassion. Machines don't. I support drones, but only in the hands of human operators.

Jason Sands
Jason Sands

Have we learned nothing from Battlestar Galactica?

John Hammond
John Hammond

Much rather send killer robots to war than having our soldiers killed!!! Plus this could be one step closer to my robot housekeeper : ) (Who I could also program to kill you in your sleep)!!! hahahahbooohahaha!!

Kevin Da'shon Johnson
Kevin Da'shon Johnson

Can't this campaign first ban cluster bombs and mines and then the killer robots

Carlos Lopez
Carlos Lopez

Guess who's the sole country that will never sign this?

Ross Krothe
Ross Krothe

They need soldiers to enforce martial law because real soldiers won't want to kill their neighbors who are revolting out of hunger.

Tamir Emran
Tamir Emran

Its funny that this is happening, because it every single sci fi movie that shows autonomous lethal weapons, the weapons ALWAYS turn on their masters, even tho they are outlawed. And there just isnt anything we can do about it, barring a full complete stop in the advancement of technology. Lets just move forward with this and do the responsible and ethical thing and put limits on these weapons. Just like a gun has a safety that prevents it from being fired by accident, these need lots of built in hardware safeties and just like space rockets have an explosive pack to prevent them from coming back down over populated areas, these need the same safety device to blow them to smithereens if they turn on us.