Any Ban on Killer Robots Faces a Tough Sell

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Fears of a Terminator-style arms race have already prompted leading AI researchers and Silicon Valley leaders to call for a ban on killer robots. The United Nations plans to convene its first formal meeting of experts on lethal autonomous weapons later this summer. But a simulation based on the hypothetical first battlefield use of autonomous weapons showed the challenges of convincing major governments and their defense industries to sign any ban on killer robots.

In October 2016, the Chatham House think tank in London convened 25 experts to consider how the United States and Europe might react to a scenario in which China uses autonomous drone aircraft to strike a naval base in Vietnam during a territorial dispute. The point of the roleplaying exercise was not to predict which country would first deploy killer robots, but instead focused on exploring the differences in opinion that might arise from the U.S. and European side. Members of the expert group took on roles representing European countries, the United States and Israel, and certain institutions such as the defense industry, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the European Union, the United Nations and NATO.

The results were not encouraging for anyone hoping to achieve a ban on killer robots.

The Atlantic Rift on Killer Robots

Neither the U.S., Israel nor any European country represented was willing to sign onto a temporary ban on the development or use of killer robot systems. Perhaps the representatives felt that the genie was already out of the bottle with the scenario of China having used such weapons, but in any case they seemed reluctant to restrict their own capabilities in deploying similar weapons.

The national governments seemed more willing to consider an international code of conduct about how such autonomous weapons might be used. But they opposed the idea of an international code of conduct that used certain “metrics” to evaluate the performance of autonomous weapons. The governments argued that having any sort of independent evaluation of their weapons performances would threaten their industrial and military security.

Some possible differences between the U.S. and Europe did emerge in terms of their broader views on arms-control agreements. One participant pointed out that the U.S. tends to see arms-control agreements as tools for managing strategic order, such as the treaties to restrict certain nuclear missile technologies. The U.S. also tends to resist outside pressure to limit its sovereignty in deciding either human rights or military issues.

By comparison, European countries have been more open to arms-control treaties based on the humanitarian goals of limiting death and injury. For example, European countries have generally embraced the 1999 Ottawa Treaty on landmines and the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions. The U.S. declined to sign both of those treaties.

If the Europeans push for more of a human rights perspective to guide development of future agreements on autonomous weapons, they may find themselves in conflict with the U.S.