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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: http://killerrobots-minesactioncanada.nationbuilder.com/.

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

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Guest Post: The Importance of a Ban on Killer Robots for an International Affairs Student

by Brett MacFarlane

When I first applied for an internship position to work on the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots back in November, I knew virtually nothing on either the campaign or the killer robots issue. I chose the internship with Mines Action Canada as my top choice because it was the position which most closely related to my field of study: Conflict Analysis and Conflict Resolution. When submitting my application, I had a conversation with my fellow students on just what exactly were killer robots. The general consensus of the group was that killer robots had to be drones that were being militarily used in such countries as Pakistan and Yemen.

Since joining the International Campaign to Stop Killer Robots in January, I have had the privilege of being exposed to a new issue that has not been discussed by the general public or even most international affairs students. I learned about current development efforts by militaries to create robotic weapons which would have complete autonomy to choose whether or not to fire on a specified target without meaningful human control. Most disturbingly I learned that some countries (e.g. the United States, Israel, and several others) have not only taken steps to develop “human-out-of-the-loop weapons”, but that some current technologies could easily be adapted to become autonomous weapons. As a student studying in an international affairs program and as a concerned person, this issue raises human rights and humanitarian concerns.

The use of autonomous weapons is a troubling issue for human rights advocates and humanitarian organizations because it would make humans increasingly vulnerable in warfare where international law is not designed to accommodate autonomous weapons. First, how could the protection of civilians be guaranteed in times of combat? If human judgment is taken out of the battlefield, robots would be tasked with distinguishing armed combatants from ordinary citizens. In this scenario, would a robot have the capability to differentiate between a soldier holding a weapon from a child holding a toy gun? The potential to have such mistakes be made is likely to occur so long as robots are given higher autonomy and decision-making capabilities on the battlefield. Further, the development and use of autonomous weapons could pose serious issues of accountability in war. For example, if a robotic system was to go awry and end up massacring a village of non-combatants, who would be held accountable? Would it be the systems operator of the machine, the military, the computer programmer, or the manufacturer of the machine? Without military troops in the air, land, or sea, who can be held liable for the actions of robots in combat? Implementing the use of autonomous robots in war would severely reduce the legal protections civilians are accorded during conflict.

I am very concerned that putting autonomous weapons on the battlefield would change how wars are fought and conducted. Wars would no longer be fought by the military personnel of two opposing sides; but by autonomous weapons, capable of making their own ‘kill decision’, against human forces. Countries which have the financial means to develop autonomous weapons could threaten lesser developed countries who would bear the costs of higher human casualties on the battlefield. More importantly, the potential for an increase in future conflict will grow as the decision to enter into combat would be much easier for leaders to make as they would not have to bear the costs of human casualties. The concern here is that countries would be sending machines to fight against humans, instead of the traditional model of human versus human. As difficult as this may be to hear, it is only through the casualties of soldiers on the battlefield that we are able to see the true cost of warfare. Taking human sacrifice out of the battlefield could potentially cause an increase in future warfare.

As interest in the topic of killer robots in the international community grows, it is pertinent that students, and indeed all citizens, begin to discuss the development of autonomous robots for military use in their respective fields. Should silence continue not only in the academic community, but in the Canadian parliament and public domain, the potential for autonomous robots to make life and death decisions on the battlefield without human control may be realized. As one concerned student, and citizen, who has signed the petition to Keep Killer Robots Fiction, I strongly encourage all to Keep Killer Robots Fiction by not only gaining exposure and increasing their knowledge on the subject, but to join me in signing the petition at http://bit.ly/KRpetition. Only through increased discussion and knowledge of this topic in the general community can pressure be mounted on governments to create a pre-emptive ban on this emerging threat.

Brett MacFarlane interned at Mines Action Canada and is a Master of the Arts Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University specializing in Conflict Analysis and Conflict Resolution. 

Guest Post: Killer Robots in Canadian Context

By Matthew Taylor

There is nothing Canadian about machines that kill people without human control. Machines that have no conscience. Machines that have no compassion. Machines without the ability to distinguish between someone who is a genuine threat and someone in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We, as a people, have for many years sought to build a safer and more peaceful world. Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney made Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid in South Africa “the highest priority of the government of Canada in our foreign affairs.”  Former Prime Minister Lester Pearson brought about modern peacekeeping in 1956. Former Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy gathered states in our nation’s capital to end the use of anti-personnel landmines around the world. These men understood that a desire for peace and justice is a basic Canadian value.  That is not something a machine can ever understand.

This issue presents us as Canadians with an opportunity to share our values, and our vision for a safer world. Killer Robots are perhaps the most important international arms control issue to emerge since nuclear weapons were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nuclear weapons redefined how we understood and approached warfare. That is why it is so absolutely necessary for the world to confront the problem of killer robots before and not after they see action on the battlefield.

The costs of playing catch up are far too evident. Once weapons are employed, most countries will scramble to re-adjust for the change in balance in power. During World War I chemical weapons were used against Canadian soldiers causing blindness, death and unspeakable suffering. Nearly one hundred years later chemical weapons were being used in Syria causing death and significant harm to civilians. With thousands of casualties of chemical weapons in between, the difficulty of banning weapons once they have been put into use is quite evident.

History has shown that the support and leadership of our nation can bring about international change. We have a duty as moral entrepreneurs to prevent the horror of autonomous killing machines from ever becoming a reality.

In November 2013, states agreed to discuss the question of lethal autonomous robots in meetings of the Convention on Conventional Weapons in May, 2014. This umbrella agreement allows for 117 member states to consider issues of arms control.

But at the moment, the official Canadian government position on Killer Robots is unclear. A government statement in the February 2014 edition of L’actualite offers little insight. In the article, a Canadian Foreign Affairs spokesman indicated that Canada does not ban weapons that do not yet exist. But in fact, Canada has participated in a pre-emptive ban of weapons before.

In 1995, Canada was one of the original parties to Protocol IV of the Convention to Conventional Weapons. This international agreement banning blinding lasers was made in the very same forum in whichkiller robots are set to be discussed in May. This not only represents a step in the right direction but a precedent upon which to build.

If a pre-emptive ban has been done before, it can be done again. Whether a weapon exists yet or not should have no bearing on whether the technology should be illegal under international humanitarian law. What should matter is whether we as a people believe that these weapons can ever be considered to be humane. To me, and to many others, the answer to that question is clearly no.

If you feel that as Canadians we must take a stand, please join me in signing our petition to Keep Killer Robots Fiction.

Matthew Taylor is an intern at Mines Action Canada and is a Master of the Arts Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University specializing in Intelligence and National Security.