There was a four day meeting on “lethal autonomous weapons systems” by the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) at the United Nations (UN) from 13 to 16 May. Voting was almost a caricature of national performance:
– 5 five countries called for a ban on fully autonomous weapons, including Cuba, Ecuador, Egypt, Holy See, and Pakistan. (none of whom are likely to have them anyway.)
– others, including France, Germany, Netherlands, and the UK, said nations should always maintain meaningful human control over targeting and attack decisions, including France, Germany, Netherlands, and the UK.
– The United States said that there should be “appropriate” human involvement over autonomy in weapons systems. (Appropriate can mean anything from full to zero, I suppose.)
– The Czech Republic and Israel each spoke on the desirability of such systems.
An article in Foreign Affairs eloquently puts the case for controlling these things. Theres a campaign and a committee.
I find myself wondering how these weapons differ from
– boobytraps and mantraps
– unguided missiles which can strike at random within an imprecise target zone
– large weapons which may hit their target but will cause huge amounts of collateral damage
However, these are passive devices; the robots would differ in that the would actively seek out victims. This raises two issues:
1. they might get it wrong, either attacking the wrong person (eg the hostage not the terrorists), or using disproportionate force
2. their use may make it easier to go to war by reducing the risk of loss to one side or both.
An example of such a system quoted in the Foreign Affairs article is the Israeli Harop system, which loiters until it detects a radar emissions then immolates itself on the source. Also, the Northrop Grumman X-47B is cited, though in this case its operations seem to depend on the electronics fitted to what is in effect a naval drone that can take off and land from carriers.
Other more scary beasts are listed in an article in The Wire: the Alpha Dog, for example, or miniature drones, though these latter appear only to look at you and not to kill you. The Alpha dog is designed to carry heavy loads for soldiers: its meant as a friendly support and described as “a highly mobile, semi-autonomous legged robot can carry 400 lbs of a squad’s load, follow squad members through rugged terrain and interact with troops in a natural way, similar to a trained animal and its handler.”
But I do wish they had given it a head!