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We Need to Start Banning Killer Robots Now, Say NGOs

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is calling on a United Nations group to start taking action.
October 20, 2015, 9:40pm
A rally for the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. Photo by Global Panorama/Flickr

When it comes to stopping the killer robot revolution, time is of the essence, according to one group actively campaigning against this kind of technology.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots—a collective of NGOs that aims to preemptively ban fully-autonomous deadly weapons—is calling on the United Nation's Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) to stop talking about weapons capable of autonomously seeking out and killing people, and start actually doing something about them.

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"At the moment, it's a talk shop, which we tolerated for the first two years but we're becoming less and less patient," Mary Wareham, an advocacy director for Human Rights Watch and the coordinator of the campaign, said at a media briefing Tuesday

Right now, militaries aren't using fully autonomous weapons in combat, but they're getting awfully close. As The Intercept's recent drone document leak shows, the US military's drones are becoming more and more removed from actual soldiers. Walsh predicted that we're only a few years away from technology that could autonomously locate and kill people—though the accuracy of this technology would be another matter, and is one of the main reasons why the campaign wants to stop them from ever being created.

For the past two years, the CCW—a treaty of 120 state members that has the authority to ban or restrict weapons—has spent a week out of each year discussing the looming development of autonomous weapon technology. Those talks were important, helping establish basics like how to even define what a killer robot is, and gave eight states a platform to make an early call for a ban on these weapons. But while the CCW's decision to pick up the mantle was heartening, the organizers behind the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots are getting frustrated that all the group has done is talk.

When the CCW meets again in Geneva this November, it will vote on how to move forward on this topic. The campaign team is confident the talks will continue, but they want more. On November 13, the CCW will decide how to proceed and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots groups are asking the committee to start working on actions it can introduce next year, during CCW's review conference, held once every five years.

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"Next year, the fifth review conference of the CCW is the make or break moment," Wareham said. "That's where you decide to launch something, adopt something, do something, and at the moment they've got no active negotiations underway. So, what are they going to do?"

The campaign's biggest concern is that if the CCW doesn't move quickly, it will be too late. We're inching ever closer to autonomous weaponry, and once a military adopts a new technology, it can be very difficult to convince them to turn back the clocks and give it up, said Toby Walsh, an artificial intelligence researcher at the University of New South Wales and member of the campaign.

"It'd be hard, for example, to take the drone away now," Walsh said. "It's just become a part of the way the US government fights its wars. It would push back strongly if you tried to say 'you shouldn't have drones,' even though I would say there is an argument that they shouldn't use drones."

Getting global militaries to all preemptively agree not to use a new kind of weapon may sound a bit pie-in-the-sky, but many of the NGOs involved in the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots have succeeded on this front before. In the 1990s, laser weapons that would permanently blind targets were in development. But after pressure from groups like Human Rights Watch, the CCW created a protocol in 1995 banning these kinds of weapons—member states agreed that they didn't want their soldiers, let alone civilians, facing this kind of horror on the battlefield. As of 2015, 105 member states have signed on to this agreement.

"We'd like to see those kind of negotiations taking place in the next few years," said Steve Goose, the director of the arms division for Human Rights Watch. "That kind of timeline is what's needed. There needs to be a sense of urgency. If we wait, the technology is going to overtake the diplomacy quite quickly."

Correction: an earlier version of this story stated five states have called for a ban on killer robots. As of October, 2015, eight member states have made this request. Motherboard regrets the error.