Many current fears around AI and automation center around the idea that superintelligence could somehow "take over," turning streets around the globe into scenes from The Terminator. While there is much to be gained from discussing the safe development of AI, there's another more imminent danger: Autonomous weapons. On Friday, after three years of negotiations, the UN unanimously agreed to take action. At the Fifth Review Conference of the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, countries around the world agreed to begin formal discussions--which will take place for two weeks at the 2017 UN convention in Geneva--on a possible ban of lethal, autonomous weapons. Talks will begin in April or August, and 88 countries have agreed to attend.
"Banning killer robots is both politically savvy and morally necessary," said Mary Wareham, the Arms Division advocacy director at Human Rights Watch and coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. "European states should take the lead and open ban treaty negotiations if they are serious about protecting the world from this horrific development." Countries attending the annual meeting of states parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) at the United Nations in Geneva will decide on November 15 whether to continue diplomatic talks on killer robots, also known as lethal autonomous weapons systems or fully autonomous weapons. Since 2014, these states have held eight meetings on lethal autonomous weapons systems under the auspices of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), a major disarmament treaty. Over the course of those meetings, states have built a shared understanding of concern, but they have struggled to reach agreement on credible recommendations for multilateral action due to the objections of a handful of military powers, most notably Russia and the United States.
The future of war lies in part with what the military calls "autonomous weapons systems" (AWS), sophisticated computerized devices which, as defined by the U.S. Department of Defense, "once activated, can select and engage targets without further intervention by a human operator." Whether that's a good idea or a bad one is debatable, but it isn't a question of if, but how soon autonomous, artificially intelligent machines will fight side by side with human soldiers on the battlefield. United States Army General Robert W. Cone (now deceased) predicted in 2014 that as many as one-quarter of all U.S. combat soldiers might be replaced by drones and robots within the next 30 years. In the U.S., both the Army and Marine Corps are already testing remote-controlled devices like the Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System (MAARS), an unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) designed primarily for reconnaissance that can also be equipped with a grenade launcher and a machine gun: The latter are known as lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS for short, or more pithily, "killer robots," as critics have dubbed them). Though they may conjure up futuristic, dystopian images redolent of The Terminator (the Arnold Schwarzenegger film about an armed super-robot from the future) or Robopocalypse (Daniel Wilson's 2011 science fiction novel about AI weapons turning on their creators), the dangers they pose are firmly rooted in reality.
Campaigners are renewing calls for a pre-emptive ban on so-called "killer robots" as representatives of more than 80 countries meet to discuss the autonomous weapons systems. The use of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) is "a step too far", said Mary Wareham, the global coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. "They cross a moral line, because we would see machines taking human lives on the battlefield or in law enforcement. "We want weapon systems and the use of force to remain under human control," Wareham said. Wareham spoke to Al Jazeera before Monday's meeting in Geneva, Switzerland on a possible ban on LAWS.