Category Archives: Events
There are countless issues facing youth worldwide today. We are on the forefront of several causes – climate change, gun violence, women’s rights, racial equality, freedom of expression, and economic issues all have made headlines recently as young people took to the streets in droves as advocates for their futures. My generation has the ability to plan and instigate mass demonstrations (due to our access to internet communication networks globally), and we have put our resources to good use. Even during the pandemic, youth demonstrations have continued in several countries, both in-person and over social media. Our access to communications technology and higher education is a privilege no previous generation has benefited from, and now more than ever young people are using it to organize and make their voices heard.
However, being the most technologically-advanced generation is a double-edged sword. Our personal data is permanently available on the internet. For many of us, this started in childhood, long before there were any legal regulations restricting the use of data on the internet. Today, our virtual vulnerability is beginning to inform the issues most important to youth. There is still a relative lack of legal protections that could keep our personal data safe, meaning we are at risk of all manner of technological threats. This year, activists in several countries were tracked using social media data and facial recognition software after attending protests. It is a very dystopian reality: our faces do not belong to us, and can be used against us at any time. I still remember going to Fridays for the Future marches in 2019 – not carrying identification or money, wearing a hat and large sunglasses. As a white woman living in Vancouver, Canada, I am certainly not at the same level of risk as my fellow protestors in the United States or Hong Kong – but the looming of threat of data still hangs over me. I (along with all other young activists) live with the reality that I cannot be anonymous – a fact that makes many of us hesitant to speak freely about causes that matter to us. This vulnerability has also become uncomfortably apparent in light of recent developments in weapons manufacturing.
The production of fully autonomous weapons systems (or “killer robots”) is fundamentally an issue of human rights in a digital age. The potential hazards of these systems are beyond comprehension – and beyond the scope of international law. For my generation, who have lived our entire lives with the internet, this is a serious issue, the severity of which we are only beginning to grasp.
In December of 2020, youth activists from 20 countries gathered for a virtual conference, to share their individual concerns regarding the development of killer robots. As the youth representative for Canada, I logged on to my laptop at 2:00am to join the panel, which encompassed 10 different time zones (mine being the biggest time difference). Though we suffered, at times, through internet connectivity issues and the general inferno that is the Zoom webinar platform, we persevered. I believe we all understood it was the only way – though the impact of a virtual conference may be lesser than that of a physical event, we felt a certain sense of duty to at least try.
Several risks were raised – the representative from Argentina shared her fear that Indigenous communities would be oppressed further by governments and private corporations armed with killer robots. The representative from Vietnam expressed concern over the perilous situation facing his country in the South China Sea, and the danger they would face should other militaries in the region implement these weapons. Another concern, raised by the representative from the United States, was focused on the financial cost of producing the weapons in his country, where rates of unemployment and poverty are climbing. Several of the concerns raised by my fellow speakers reflect other issues that matter to our generation: the rights of minority communities (who will be at great risk if their oppressor gains access to these weapons), freedom of expression (concerns have been raised over the safety of activists should their governments implement killer robots).
One of the concerns raised was the central point in my own speech: the issue of technological advancement and legality. Currently, international law does not have any precedent that could address the legality of killer robots. Technological development worldwide continues to be somewhat of a legal “no man’s land”, in that much of it has occurred without any restrictions to limit its scope. For killer robots, this means there is nothing regulating their development or implementation as of yet. Combined with the lack of legal regulations over the use of personal data, the risk becomes clearer. Killer robots will mostly require artificial intelligence to function, and artificial intelligence requires data to “think”. For those of us whose personal data has been available on the internet since we were children, this is a massive risk to our safety and freedom.
The most common thread among the speeches from my fellow activists was the act of calling upon our governments to take the threat of killer robots seriously. We feel that, like many issues youth are facing today, it is pushed aside in favour of more immediate concerns. Like climate change, the dangers of killer robots seem far-off to many people – they will happen someday, but that day is part of a distant, imagined future that does not concern them. For my generation, that future does not feel so distant. If killer robots are implemented as far in the future as 2040, I’ll be forty-one years old – young enough to be middle-aged, and spend the last half of my life in a world with autonomous weapons. Like climate change, the existence of killer robots is closer than we think, and young people like me know that it will affect us.
Attending the youth conference gave me a strange sense of optimism. For many of us, 2020 was a difficult year. I felt the weight of it on my shoulders as I sat in my desk chair in the middle of night to sign into Zoom, knowing that had things been different I might have been able to travel and see my fellow speakers in person. Yet somehow, I felt lighter when I finally closed my laptop screen at 6:00am. I think it was the lightness that comes from being among likeminded people – from not being alone. I was in a (virtual) room full of people my age who know about an issue that I am passionate about, and who are just as passionate as I am. The lack of human connection that comes with virtual events was a barrier, but I think we broke through it. To me, the youth conference felt like the start of something – I don’t know exactly what, but I like to think it will be good.
Tara Osler was Mines Action Canada’s Summer 2020 Research and Communications Assistant and is currently studying at the University of British Columbia.
Last week, Yoshua Bengio, Geoffrey Hinton, and Yann LeCun were named the winners of the 2018 Turing Award. The A.M. Turing Award, sometimes referred to as computing’s Nobel Prize, is given for major contributions of lasting importance to computing by the Association for Computing Machinery.
All three honourees are supporters of a ban on autonomous weapons, having signed public letters calling on states to take action. Yoshua Bengio and Geoffrey Hinton, who are both based in Canada, spoke with the Toronto Star regarding their concerns about autonomous weapons and the lack of progress on a ban.
While the award was being announced, states were meeting at the United Nations for the Group of Governmental Experts on lethal autonomous weapons systems. The meeting was marked by a minority of states delaying progress sought by the majority of states. States need to heed the concerns and warnings of experts like the 2018 Turing Award winners and the general public who do not want to see autonomous weapons developed.
The discussion about autonomous weapons is coming to Ottawa!
Join us on August 16th to hear from national experts about the future of warfare and Canada’s role.
Delivered by: Erin Hunt, Programme Coordinator
Thank you Mr. Chair. As a co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, Mines Action Canada is very conscious of public opinion and the public conversation concerning autonomous weapons systems. Recently, autonomous weapon systems have been in the news in Canada. Last week, over 200 Canadian Artificial Intelligence experts released an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling for Canadian leadership on the issue. The letter states [quote] “Lethal autonomous weapons systems that remove meaningful human control from determining the legitimacy of targets and deploying lethal force sit on the wrong side of a clear moral line.” [unquote]
Copies of this letter can be found at the back of the room. It is not only in Canada where the AI research community is speaking out – a similar letter was also released in Australia. As mentioned by my colleague, since the last time the CCW met a letter from over 100 founders of robotics and artificial intelligence companies calling for a preemptive ban on autonomous weapons was also released. Additional national letters are in the works.
These public letters show that concerns about possible negative impacts of a pre-emptive ban are misplaced as ICRAC made clear moments ago and what the research community is calling for is bold and decisive action.
Mines Action Canada appreciates the significant number of expert presentations we have had this week but we hope that states will take time to share their views substantially over the remaining days.
From states who say Article 36 review may be sufficient to deal with our concerns about autonomous weapons systems, we hope to hear how an Article 36 review would be able to assess bias in the data used in machine learning and how comportment with IHL would be ensured by systems that continue to learn after the review.
In light of persistent statements from some delegations that they are uncertain about what we are talking about here, we hope to hear states share their current understanding of autonomous weapons systems. Specific definitions are not needed at this stage but we believe there is more clarity and consensus on these questions than one may think.
We would like to hear more on next steps from states who are calling for a pre-emptive ban. Mines Action Canada would welcome concrete discussions on how to ensure that momentum is not lost on this issue. We lost a week of work in August but as I mentioned at the beginning of my statement, the public conversation about autonomous weapons continues to advance and the people at home expect us to make progress.
This week it is important to continue to build on the work done in the past and to ensure that further discussions take place in 2018. Administrative challenges do not lessen “the need to continue the codification and progressive development of the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict” that is reaffirmed in the Preamble of this Convention. The technology is rapidly advancing and so must our conversations here.
Today Mines Action Canada Program Coordinator made an intervention during CCW discussions about autonomous weapons systems and weapons review processes.
Thank you Madame Chair. I would like to take this opportunity to share Mines Action Canada’s observations about Article 36 reviews.
Like many others, Mines Action Canada was concerned to learn that there was so little transparency around Article 36 weapons reviews at last year’s experts meeting. The fact that so few states were willing to discuss their weapons review process is a significant impediment to the prevention of humanitarian harm caused by new weapons. Indeed it seems that too few states actually undertake these reviews in a comprehensive manner.
Last year’s revelations concerning Article 36 reviews have made it clear that international discussions on the topic are necessary. Today is a start. States need to be more transparent in their weapons review processes. Sharing criteria and standards or setting international standards will do much to shed light on the shadowy world of arms procurement. Mines Action Canada believes that Article 36 weapons reviews should be a topic of discussion at the international level to strengthen both policy and practice around the world.
However, better weapons reviews will not solve the problems associated with autonomous weapons systems for a number of reasons.
First, there is the issue of timing. A successful international process to increase the effectiveness of weapons reviews will require a significant amount of time – time we do not have in the effort to prevent the use of autonomous weapons systems because technology is developing too rapidly.
Second, weapons reviews were designed for a very different type of weapon than autonomous weapon systems which have been called the third revolution in warfare. Autonomous weapons systems will blur the line between weapon and soldier to a level that may be beyond the ability of a weapons review process. In addition, the systemic complexity that will be required to operate such a weapons system is a far cry from the more linear processes found in current weapons.
Third, Article 36 reviews are not obligated to cover weapons used for domestic purposes outside of armed conflict such as policing, border control, or crowd control. Mines Action Canada, along with many civil society organizations and states present here, have serious concerns about the possible use of autonomous weapons systems in law enforcement and uses outside of armed conflict more generally.
Fourth and most importantly, weapons reviews cannot answer the moral questions surrounding delegating the kill decision to a machine. An Article 36 review cannot tell us if it is acceptable for an algorithm to kill without meaningful human control. And that is one of the key questions we are grappling with here this week.
Article 36 weapons reviews are a legal obligation for most of the states here. It is time for a separate effort to strengthen the standards and transparency around weapons reviews. That effort must neither distract from nor overtake our work here to deal with the real moral, legal, ethical and security problems associated with autonomous weapons systems. Weapons reviews must be supplemented by new and robust international law that clearly and deliberately puts meaningful human control at the centre of all new weapons development.
The concerns raised by autonomous weapons are urgent and must take priority. In fact, a GGE next year on autonomous weapons will greatly assist future work on weapons reviews by highlighting the many challenges new technologies pose for such reviews.
Overall, there is a need for international work to improve Article 36 reviews but there is little evidence to back up the claims of some states that weapons review processes would be sufficient to ensure that autonomous weapons systems are acceptable. Article 36 reviews are only useful once questions of the moral and ethical acceptability of a weapon have been dealt with. Until that time, it would be premature to view weapons review as a panacea to our issues here at CCW.
Our Executive Director, Paul Hannon delivered an opening statement at the CCW meeting on autonomous weapons systems today.
Thank you, Chairperson.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak on behalf of Mines Action Canada. Mines Action Canada is a Canadian disarmament organization that has been working to reduce the humanitarian impact of indiscriminate weapons for over twenty years. During this time, we have worked with partners around the world including here at the CCW to respond to the global crisis caused by landmines, cluster munitions, and other indiscriminate weapons. What makes this issue different is we have an opportunity to act now before a weapon causes a humanitarian catastrophe.
As a co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, Mines Action Canada’s concern with the development of autonomous weapons systems runs across the board. We have numerous legal, moral/ethical, technical, operational, political, and humanitarian concerns about autonomous weapons systems. The question of the acceptability of delegating death is not an abstract thought experiment, but is the fundamental question with policy, legal and technological implications for the real-world. We must all keep this question at the fore whenever discussing autonomous weapons systems: do you want to live in a world where algorithms or machines can make the decision to take a life? War is a human activity and removing the human component in war is dangerous for everybody. We strongly support the position of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots that permitting machines to take a human life on the battlefield or in policing, border or crowd control, and other circumstances is unacceptable.
We have watched the development of discourse surrounding autonomous weapons systems since the beginning of the campaign. 2015 saw a dramatic expansion of the debate into different forums and segments of our global community and that expansion and the support it has generated have continued into 2016. Be it at artificial intelligence conferences, the World Economic Forum, the Halifax Security Forum or in the media, the call for a pre-emptive ban is reaching new audiences. The momentum towards a pre-emptive ban on autonomous weapons systems is clearly growing.
Mines Action Canada recognizes that there are considerable challenges facing the international community in navigating legal issues concerning an emerging technology. The desire to not hinder research and development into potentially beneficial technologies is understandable, but a pre-emptive ban on autonomous weapons systems will not limit beneficial research. As a senior executive from a robotics company representative told us at a workshop on autonomous weapons last week, there are no other applications for an autonomous system which can make a “kill or not kill” decision. The function providing an autonomous weapon the ability to make the “kill decision” and implement it does not have an equivalent civilian use. A pre-emptive ban would have no impact on the funding of research and development for artificial intelligence nor robotics.
On the other hand there are numerous other applications that would benefit society by improving other aspects of robot weapons while maintaining meaningful human control over the decision to cause harm. Communications technology, encryption, virtual reality, sensor technology – all have much broader and beneficial applications, from search and rescue by first responders to watching a school play when you can’t be there in person. None of that research and development would be hindered by a pre-emptive ban on autonomous weapons systems. A pre-emptive ban would though allow governments, private sector and academics to direct investments towards technologies which can have as much future benefit to non-military uses as possible.
While the “kill decision” function is only necessary for one application of robotic technology, predictability is an important requirement for all robots regardless of the context in which they are used. Manufacturing robots work well because they work in a predictable space. Driverless cars will also work in a predictable space though much less predictable than a factory, which is one of the reasons they require so much more testing and time to develop. Robotic weapons will be required to work in the least predictable of spaces, that is in combat and, therefore, are much more prone to failure. Commanders on the other hand need weapons they can rely on. Civilians need and have a right to expect that every effort is taken to protect them from the harmful effects of conflict.
Mines Action Canada appreciates the significant number of expert presentations scheduled for this week but we hope that states will take time to share their views throughout the week. It is time for states to begin to talk about their concerns, their positions and their policies. For this reason, we are calling on the High Contracting Parties to take the next step later this year at the Review Conference and mandate a GGE with a mandate to negotiate a new protocol on autonomous weapons.
We note that in the last 20 years three new legal instruments have entered into force. Each bans a weapon system and each was covered by the general rules of International Humanitarian Law at the time, but the international community felt that new specific laws banning these weapons was warranted. This not only strengthened the protection of civilians, but also made IHL more robust.
Autonomous weapons systems are not your average new weapon; they have the potential to fundamentally alter the nature of conflict. As a “game-changer” autonomous weapons systems deserve a serious and in-depth discussion. That discussion should also happen at the national level. Mines Action Canada hopes that our country will begin that effort this spring through the recently announced defence review and that other states will follow suit with their own national discussions.
At the core of this work is a desire to protect civilians and limit the humanitarian harm caused by armed conflict. We urge states not to lose sight of the end goal and their motivations as they complete the difficult work necessary for a robust and effective pre-emptive ban.
Next week, states will decide if and how they will continue international talks on autonomous weapons systems at the UN`s Convention on Conventional Weapons in Geneva. We and the whole Campaign to Stop Killer Robots are calling on states to take the next step towards a ban by agreeing to a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) in 2016. A GGE will allow states to explore the issues surrounding autonomous weapons systems in depth.
With such an important decision looming over states, we are launching the winners of our youth video contest. Last week, we shared the runner-up video.
Today, we are pleased to announce that Steven Hause of Florida State University won the video contest. Steven’s video covers a number of the key concerns the Campaign has about autonomous weapons systems. We hope that this video will remind governments of the need to take action at CCW next week.
Last week, 87 states gathered in Geneva to discuss lethal autonomous weapons systems.
This Informal Experts Meeting ran from May 13 to May 16 and was the first international discussion on autonomous weapons systems. The meeting was focused on information rather than decision making. The 87 states attended the meeting under the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) along with representatives from UN agencies including UNIDIR, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and registered non-governmental organizations including the delegation of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.
The four day meeting included general debate and then substantive sessions with presentations from experts. The Chair’s summary showed that there is a willingness to pursue this topic and a possible issue for the next meetings would be the concept of meaningful human control. The options for going forward cited include exchange of information, development of best practices, moratorium on research, and a ban. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots has a great piece about the meeting on their website.
Over the course of the week many states highlighted the importance of always maintaining meaningful human control over targeting and attack decisions. We are MAC were not only pleased that 5 countries have already called for a ban, but also that no country vigorously defended or argued for autonomous systems weapons although Czech Republic and Israel each spoke on the desirability of such systems.
Unlike most countries, Canada has not yet provided copies of their statements to Reaching Critical Will or to the United Nations so we have had to piece together the statements from the CCW Review and Twitter. On day 1, Canada was the only country to say that existing international humanitarian law is sufficient to regulate the use of autonomous weapons. It also said that the definition of autonomy is difficult as autonomy is subjective depending on the system. On day 2, Canada said that the moral aspects of autonomous weapons are important and must be part of discussions in CCW. It looks like Canada did not make any statements or interventions on Day 3. On day 4, Canada called for more discussion on the ethical and political issues including meaningful human control under the CCW. Canada also said humanitarian and state security concerns must be balanced in considering autonomous weapons – which is language usually heard from Russia, China and similar states.
Some of the presentations from the substantive sessions are available online:
Technological Issues – key topics included definitions of autonomy and meaningful human control. Included a debate between Ron Arkin who believes that it is pre-mature to ban autonomous weapons and Noel Sharkey who does not believe that computerised weapons without a human in control can fully comply with international humanitarian law in the foreseeable future.
Ethics and Sociology – key topics included if machines should make the decision to take a human life, the relevance of human judgement to international law and the need for human control.
Legal Issues (International Humanitarian Law) – key topics included definitions, whether or not autonomous weapons systems are inherently illegal, morality and military effectiveness. This was an extensive debate.
Legal Issues (other areas of international law) – key topics included human rights law, accountability and article 36 weapons reviews.
Operational and military issues – key topics included meaningful human control, military effectiveness and the nature of warfare.
The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots held side events each day to delve deeper into the issues at hand. These side events were well attended and lively discussions covered the topics at hand in greater depth.
While the meetings were progressing in Geneva here at the national level Mines Action Canada was working to ensure these historic sessions reached media coverage across Canada. For example:
- Paul Hannon was on Calgary’s News Talk 770 and News Talk 610 in St. Catherines.
- Erin Hunt was on Kevin Newman Live (starts 2:40 mark) and CFAX 1070 in Victoria (starts 6:07 mark).
- Dr. Ian Kerr was on Ontario Today – you should definitely check out the call of the day.
- Prof. Noel Sharkey was on CBC’s As It Happens (starts at 9:40 mark)
- The Globe and Mail, the Weather Network, Global News, CTV News, Ottawa Citizen and Metro also covered the issue while the Ottawa Citizen Defense Blog picked up our press release.
CCW member states will reconvene in November to decide if they want to continue these talks. Until then Mines Action Canada and our colleagues in the international campaign will continue to push for a renewed and expanded mandate including continued discussions on meaningful human control over all targeting and firing decisions.
Mines Action Canada and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots hosted a number of events in Ottawa over the past two days to begin the discussion in Canada about autonomous weapons. We were pleased to have Mary Wareham, Global Coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and Advocacy Director, Arms Division at Human Rights Watch along with Peter Asaro, Professor at the New School and Vice-Chair of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC) join us and local expert Ian Kerr, in Ottawa for the events. Be sure to check out the great summary of the events on the Campaign’s website.
On April 28th, we met with other peace, disarmament and development organizations to talk about the campaign and to begin to build a stronger civil society presence in Canada on this issue. There was a lot of a interest from our non-profit colleagues so we look forward to hearing more voices on this issue in the near future.
Later that day, we hosted a public event at Ottawa City Hall. There was a panel discussion with Peter, Paul, Mary and Ian followed by a rather lively Question and Answer session with the audience. The audience was generally quite supportive of the Campaign and our efforts to achieve a pre-emptive ban on autonomous weapons. Audience members with backgrounds in engineering, law, the military and politics all expressed concern about the development of killer robots.
The following morning, MAC hosted a breakfast briefing for parliamentarians and their staff, other NGOs and decision makers in Ottawa. The Bagels and ‘Bots breakfast was the first time some of these decision makers had heard of the issue and it seemed to strike a chord with many in the room. After breakfast, the team was off to Parliament Hill for a press conference. At the press conference and in MAC’s press release, campaigners called for Canadian leadership on this issue internationally and for Canada to be the first country in the world to declare a moratorium on the development and production of killer robots.
The media in Ottawa and across the country have taken quite an interest in these events. The Canadian Press story was picked up in newspapers across the country as well as national media outlets and there was an associated list of facts about killer robots. The Sun News Network, and Ottawa Citizen also covered the Campaign while MAC has received a number of radio interview requests. Paul Hannon, Executive Director, was on CKNW Morning News with Philip Till.
One very exciting result of these activities is that The Globe and Mail’s editorial team has come out in support of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and our call:
The world has a long banned some weapons deemed dangerous, indiscriminate or inhumane, including chemical weapons and land mines. Autonomous robot weapons carry all such risks, and add new ones to the list. They are not wielded remotely by humans, but are intended to operate without supervision. They’re about turning life and death decisions over to software. Canada should be a leading voice advocating for a global protocol limiting their development and use.
Also Jian Ghomenshi on CBC Radio’s Q called for Canadian leadership on killer robots, he says that leadership on this issue is something Canadians could be proud of and that it could be a legacy issue for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The Keep Killer Robots Fiction initiative is off to a great start. You can get involved by signing and sharing the petition at: http://bit.ly/KRpetition.
Come join us to launch the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots in Canada.
Join us at Ottawa City Hall for a panel discussion on fully autonomous weapons, led by Mines Action Canada and including guest speakers:
- Ian Kerr – Professor, University of Ottawa, and Canada Research Chair for Ethics, Law and Technology (Ottawa, ON)
- Mary Wareham – Advocacy Director – Arms Division, Human Rights Watch, and Global Coordinator for the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots (Washington, DC)
- Peter Asaro – The New School for Public Engagement and Co-Founder and Co-Chair of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (New York, NY)
- Paul Hannon – Executive Director, Mines Action Canada (Ottawa, ON)
Where? : Ottawa City Hall – the Colonel By room
When? : April 28th, 7:00 pm (Doors at 6:45 pm)
Check out the Public Event Flyer for all the details.