Blog Archives

Gearing up for the Review Conference

The Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) Review Conference in December will decide if they will hold a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) meeting on autonomous weapons systems in 2017. A GGE is the logical next step in the work to address concerns about autonomous weapons systems (or killer robots).

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is getting ready for the Review Conferenc20161012_154323e here in Canada and around the world.  Check out our colleagues at Reaching Critical Will for an update on the Preparatory Meeting of the CCW to see how the international preparations are going.

On the Canadian side, our Program Coordinator, Erin Hunt, was pleased to deliver the Campaign’s statement to the United Nations General Assembly’s First Committee on October 12.

Over the next month and a bit, we will be talking with parliamentarians, civil society and academics to help ensure that Canada takes a strong position at the Review Conference and beyond. You can help by writing your MP to ask that Canada outline a national policy on autonomous weapons or by donating online to support our work.


Opening Statement at CCW in 2016

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.
Thank you.

Guest Post – Killer Robots in Geneva: Through the Ottawa Looking Glass

After the last informal meeting of experts in Geneva on killer robots (or as they prefer to call them “lethal autonomous weapon systems”) wrapped up it is an appropriate time to take stock of what we learned from the conference. A lot of ground was covered in Geneva, too much to cover in one short blog post, but there were a few ideas that received a lot of attention that are worth mentioning here.

First and foremost the idea of ‘meaningful human control’ got a lot of attention from all sides in the debate. So what is meaningful human control and how does that impact the debate on killer robots? Simply put, meaningful human control means that a human will always be the one that makes the decision whether or not to use force. There are three ways in which these systems are often described: human ‘in the loop’, human ‘on the loop’ and human ‘out of the loop’. A system with humans ‘out of the loop’ is the type of system that can target and use force without any human control and is the type of system that the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots seeks to ban. Systems with humans ‘on the loop’ give humans the ability to monitor the activity of the weapon and stop it if necessary. However, these systems may not furnish the decision maker with enough time to assess the information reported by the weapon. Finally, systems with humans ‘in the loop’ are more akin to traditional weapon systems, where the decision to use force rests firmly with a human operator.

The discussion of meaningful human control was linked to discussions about whether or not it was ethical or moral to delegate life and death decisions to machines. Some criticize this approach on the basis that meaningful human control isn’t a legal standard, or is too vague, but that criticism misses the point. This moral and ethical consideration is at the heart of the debate on killer robots; if only strict legal standards were applied then the ability and function of the technology would begin to determine how it is used. Strictly applying legal standards may approve the use of killer robots in areas that seemingly have no impact on civilians such as in outer space. Once such a precedent was set it would be difficult to stop the full use of killer robots.

After meaningful human control, the arguments made against a pre-emptive ban on killer robots formed a consistent theme throughout the conference, no matter the specific subject at hand. The refrain goes something like this, “We don’t know how this technology will evolve, so a pre-emptive ban could deprive the world of potentially useful technologies”. There is a concrete example of this not happening (the ban on blinding laser weapons), and various other treaties with dual-use implications have proven that banning a class of weapon does not adversely impact commercial or industrial activity. The Chemical Weapons Convention, which was discussed, provides a good example of how an export-control regime and competent verification can stop the spread of chemical weapons, while maintaining the ability of states to develop chemical industries.

Clearly then, neither of these two things should stop us from a pre-emptive ban on killer robots. As a co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, Mines Action Canada encourages all of you to engage with the issue and to advocate for a ban with your friends, family, local politician and anyone else who wants to listen. An easy way to start would be signing and sharing our petition to Keep Killer Robots Fiction here:

Michael Binnington is a M.A. Candidate at Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and a Research Associate at Mines Action Canada.

A New Mandate and a New Video

Today at the UN in Geneva, states approved a new mandate for further discussions about autonomous weapons systems in 2015.  To celebrate, we are pleased to share our new video on why we need to Keep Killer Robots Fiction.

Remember, students you can make your own killer robots video in our film contest.

UN Talks Recap

Campaigners outside the UN in Geneva (via Campaign to Stop Killer Robots)

Campaigners outside the UN in Geneva (via Campaign to Stop Killer Robots)

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:

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.

States to work on Killer Robots

Today the States Parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) agreed to convene a meeting to discuss fully autonomous weapons  or killer robots in May 2014.   Mines Action Canada (MAC), a co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, welcomes this historic decision to begin to address this issue.  MAC encourages all states to pursue an international ban on these weapons to ensure there will always be meaningful human control over targeting decisions and the use of violent force.

We are pleased that Canada made its first public statements on this topic during the CCW joining the other 43 nations who have spoken out on fully autonomous weapons since May.  MAC looks forward to working with the Government of Canada to develop national policies on fully autonomous weapons.  Along with our colleagues from the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots we hope to see Canada actively participate in the CCW discussions.  Mines Action Canada encourages Canada to take on a leadership role in international efforts to ban fully autonomous weapons and ensure that humans will always have meaningful control over life and death decisions in conflict.

“If we have learned anything from the Canadian led efforts to ban landmines, it is that the world cannot afford to wait until there is a humanitarian crisis to act.  We need a preemptive ban on fully autonomous weapons before they can cause a humanitarian disaster,” said Paul Hannon, Executive Director, Mines Action Canada.

For more details on the CCW mandate, please see the international web site for the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

First ever UN debate on killer robots

This week, the United Nations Human Rights Council became the first UN body to discuss the issue of killer robots.  To mark the occasion, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots headed to Geneva to introduce our campaign to diplomats, UN agencies and civil society.  Check out the full report from the international campaign.