Explainer: The automation of war

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More than 100 high-profile business leaders have signed a letter urging the United Nations to prevent escalation of the supposed threats posed by autonomous weapons. The letter warns that such weapon development could lead to warfare at a scale greater than ever and speed “faster than humans can comprehend”.

Autonomous weapons, or “killer robots”, are designed to identify enemy targets and engage them without human involvement. They are intended to be more efficient than conventional warfare, which requires  humans to identify targets and assess risks before pulling a trigger.


The letter, signed by 116 leaders in artificial intelligence technology, was addressed to the UN’s Conference of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.

With signatures including Tesla’s Elon Musk and Google Deepmind’s Mustafa Suleyman, the letter does not explicitly call for the UN to ban these weapons.

However the business leaders said that they felt “especially responsible in raising this alarm” as the technology from their companies is likely to contribute to the development of autonomous weapons.

At a conference on the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons last year, experts agreed to establish a new Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS).

The GGE was due to meet on 21 August to begin discussing potential international regulation of autonomous weapons, but the meeting was delayed because some member states had not paid UN contributions.

Toby Walsh, professor of artificial intelligence at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, coordinated the letter and published it at the International Conference on Artificial Intelligence, currently taking place in Melbourne [19-25 August].

The letter encourages the GGE to “prevent an arms race in these weapons, to protect civilians from their misuse, and to avoid the destabilizing effects of these technologies.”

The business leaders warned that autonomous weapons could lead to armed conflict fought “at a greater scale than ever and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend.”

The letter further warned that such weapons could be misused by despots and terrorists and hacked by opponents, at great risk to civilians.

“We do not have long to act,” they wrote, “Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close.”

The tech

The development of artificial intelligence (AI) in arms builds on the use of unmanned aircraft (drones), which have the advantage of keeping the targeting combatants far from danger.

In practical terms, the initial difference would be that the drone identifies the target itself, and makes a calculation on the risk of collateral damage before deciding whether to launch a strike, without any human intervention. Such technology could be advanced to become the overarching means of controlling weapons in war more broadly.

According to Human Rights Watch, South Korea has deployed automated gun towers in the demilitarised zone (DMZ) with North Korea.  This system, possibly deployed due to the fact that North Korea’s military is larger in number than that of the South’s, uses a laser rangefinder and infrared technology to seek targets in the DMZ, and can be delpoyed manually or autonomously.

The risk

Campaigners against the development of autonomous weapons argue that it is unlikely that AI could replace human judgment and reliably assess the risk of causing a breach of humanitarian law.

Humanitarian law (the international standards that are supposed to govern combat) rests on the “cardinal principles” of proportionality and distinction.

These principles, relying on an assumption that any war can only be legally justified as defensive, mean that any combative action must be proportionate to the defensive aim of the war, and any attack must distinguish between civilians and combatants.

An additional addendum to the canon of humanitarian law, known as the Martens Clause, established in 1899, requires actors to be mindful of the “public conscience”.

In a 2016 report, Human Rights Watch said that “Although progress is likely in the development of sensory and processing capabilities, distinguishing an active combatant from a civilian or an injured or surrendering soldier requires more than such capabilities.”

In a 2013 report for the UN’s Human Rights Council, Christof Heyns, the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions wrote that “Proportionality is widely understood to involve distinctively human judgement.”

“The prevailing legal interpretations of the rule explicitly rely on notions such as “common sense”, “good faith” and the “reasonable military commander standard,” Heyns went on, “It remains to be seen to what extent these concepts can be translated into computer programmes, now or in the future.”

The Stop Killer Robots campaign group warned earlier this year that “low-cost sensors and advances in artificial intelligence are making it increasingly practical to design weapons systems that would target and attack without any meaningful human control.”

According to the campaign group, 19 countries have endorsed calls for a preemptive ban on fully autonomous weapons systems.

In 2015, Walsh organised another letter signed by over 1000 tech experts and scientists, which also warned against starting an AI military arms race.

Read more

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United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) “Framing discussions on the weaponization of increasingly autonomous technology”

Jack Barton is a WikiTribune journalist. He has an LLM in Human Rights and a background reporting on law and international development. Follow him on Twitter @jackbarton91

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