We’re almost a month into 2016 and autonomous weapons systems have already been in the news thanks to a strong panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots was pleased to see the panel agree that the world needs a diplomatic process to pre-emptively ban autonomous weapons systems started soon. You can read the whole analysis by the Campaign’s coordinator here.
Yes 2016 is starting on a high note for the campaign but this is not the time to be complacent. We need to keep that momentum going internationally and here in Canada. The new government has yet to share a national policy on autonomous weapons systems. Before the election, the Liberal Party of Canada wrote that:
“Emerging technologies such as Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems pose new and serious ethical questions that must be studied and understood. The Liberal Party of Canada will work with experts and civil society to ensure that the Canadian Government develops appropriate policies to address the use and proliferation of autonomous weapon systems.”
Now that the Liberals form the government, they will have to develop “appropriate policies” soon because the international community is moving forward, albeit verrrrrry slowly. States are meeting in April 2016 for a third (and hopefully final) informal experts meeting on autonomous weapons systems under the United Nations’ Convention on Conventional Weapons and then at the end of the year, states will have the opportunity to start negotiations on a pre-emptive ban. The UN process has been called “glacial” and that it “shows no sense of urgency” but there’s time for states to pick up the pace and Canada can take a leadership role.
Canadian industry, academics and NGOs have already taken a leadership role on banning autonomous weapon systems so now it’s the government’s turn. The Canadian government and Prime Minister Trudeau made a big impression at the World Economic Forum so we hope that they will take that energy forward to act on one of newist issues discussed there. Let’s make 2016 a year of action on autonomous weapons systems.
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.
In less than two weeks, 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.
With such an important decision looming over states, we are launching the winners of our youth video contest. This week, we are pleased to present the runner-up video (and top high school video) by Daryl, Henry, Joseph and Anders at Petersburg High School.
Please feel free to share widely!
We thank all those who submitted videos to the contest and congratulate Daryl, Henry, Joseph and Anders on their excellent video. Come back next week to see the winning entry.
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.
**CONTEST IS NOW INTERNATIONAL – STUDENTS FROM AROUND THE WORLD WELCOME TO ENTER**
Mines Action Canada is launching a Keep Killer Robots Fiction video contest for students. We are inviting students from
across Canada around the world to make and submit 2 minute video on the theme of “Keep Killer Robots Fiction“.
What is the purpose? The purpose of this competition is to find new, compelling and provocative ways to start a conversation in the public about autonomous weapons systems. Autonomous weapons systems or killer robots are future weapons that can select and fire upon targets without human control.
Killer robots have been a staple trope in fiction and entertainment for years. Over the past decade, the possibility of fully autonomous weapons is becoming closer to reality. Recently we have seen a dramatic rise in unmanned weapons that has changed the face of warfare. New technology is permitting serious efforts to develop fully autonomous weapons. These robotic weapons would be able to choose and fire on targets on their own, without any human intervention. This capability would pose a fundamental challenge to the protection of civilians and to compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law. For clarity it is necessary to note that fully autonomous weapons are not drones; drones have a human pilot in a remote location. Fully autonomous weapons are a large step beyond armed drones. You can learn more about autonomous weapons systems online at: www.stopkillerrobots.ca.
Your submission should illustrate one of the major problems with autonomous weapons systems or ask a question about handing over life and death decisions to a machine:
- A lack of accountability – who is responsible if an autonomous weapon kills the wrong person or malfunctions?
- Inability to distinguish between legitimate and legal targets and others – human soldiers must be able to tell the difference between soldiers and civilians, could a robot ever make that distinction?
- The moral issues surrounding outsourcing life and death decisions to machines – is it right to allow machines to choose to end a human life?
Please don’t limit yourself to these example questions about autonomous weapons, they are intended to inspire you to create some questions of your own to guide your project.
Who can participate? Submissions will be accepted from any contestant between the ages of 18 and 30 who is currently enrolled in post-secondary education.
How do I enter the competition? Submitting your entry to the video contest is easy! Simply complete these three steps by March 15, 2015:
- Visit the contest entry form on our website, and fill in all of the required information.
- Upload your video to Vimeo and specify the location (URL) on the entry form. Memberships to Vimeo are free.
- Submit your online entry form to the Mines Action Canada team.
The Contest Rules and other information can be found in the Video Contest Announcement. Please read the announcement carefully to ensure that your project is eligible for consideration by our panel of expert judges. The contest entry form is available online at: http://goo.gl/forms/0VOGD6mgTp.
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.
This week states are meeting at the United Nations in Geneva to decide if discussion on lethal autonomous weapons systems will continue at the Convention on Conventional Weapons. States should continue to discuss this issue and to debate key problems with autonomous weapons systems. One of the key problems is the issue of human control. Learn more with this new video.
Proportionality is a key term for international humanitarian law that means any collateral damage must be proportional to the military gain from any action. We are very concerned that fully autonomous weapons systems or killer robots won’t be able to weigh proportionality.
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.