Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Campaign to Ban Autonomous Killer Robots

Last week, Human Rights Watch, joined by the Nobel Women's Initiative, launched a campaign to develop an international ban on autonomous killer robots. A 50-page report, Losing Humanity: The Case Against Killer Robots, published jointly by HRW and Harvard Law School's International Human Rights Clinic, was released on Monday.

According to the report, the U.S. Department of Defense is spending roughly $6 billion per year on unmanned systems, a figure projected to grow quickly given the military's avowed interest in procuring more robotic weapons with expanding capabilities. A number of other countries are also investing in military robotics with increasing degrees of autonomy. The most newsworthy example in recent days has been Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system. At present, the Iron Dome system puts a human operator in the loop, but it is clearly a system for which fully autonomous operations would be possible.

The report opposes the deployment of lethal autonomous robots on three grounds: (1) such robots would not conform to the rules of international humanitarian law as they relate to noncombatant immunity, proportionality, and military necessity; (2) they would not be subject to extra-legal protections for civilians such as those predicated on human compassion and empathy, thus making them suitable for use by repressive governments against their own populations; and (3) they would make it difficult to establish accountability for war crimes given the elimination of direct human agency. The report concludes with a recommendation that those involved in the development of robotic weapons generate a code of conduct governing work that might lead to the creation of fully autonomous systems.