Killer Robots? We're after you

Coming soon near you it’s The Terminator. Yes, folks the fully autonomous weapon is firmly on the horizon.
Whether on the battlefield or targeted on the streets, these weapons should have no place in warfare or policing. But a future where the decision on whether you live or die could soon be made by a Killer Robot. It sounds like science fiction, but the reality is moving ever closer.

The UK began testing its autonomous unmanned intercontinental combat aircraft in October 2013. The US is already ahead of the game with the X47 that can now take-off and land on aircraft carriers. China has been developing the Anjian for autonomous air-to-air combat. There are also parallel developments with ground, sea and submarine robots.

The UK’s Taranis is a weapons system that is currently being developed. Its manufacturers describe it as an “autonomous and survivable” drone. South Korea’s SGR-1 Sentry robot can detect people in the demilitarised zone and if a human grants the command, fire its weapons.

Governments currently insist that the final decision will remain under ‘human control’ and some believe international legislation is strong enough to stop it.  But is that truly the case?

Amnesty is a member of the catchy-named Stop The Killer Robots Coalition and they, like me, are sceptical. The same arguments about international legislation being sufficient were used for Cluster Munitions and the Arms Trade, but it was only when global treaties were created did progress really occur.

The Coalition, which only launched in April this year, believes the same route has to happen for Killer Robots. And I back them. We need a strong and robust global agreement to ban fully autonomous weapons.

The Coalition has already made some progress. The first step towards such a treaty was taken today at the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons in Geneva. The meeting has agreed to a timetable to begin talks on how the weapons might be regulated in the future. It is a start, but the key now is to ensure that it goes somewhere.

We want a strong commitment that the weapons will always remain under human control and a firm definition of what ‘human control’ actually means. ‘Human Control’ does not mean robots can be pre-programmed to select and destroy targets. If that is the case where is the accountability? And what happens if they go rogue?

It is not just Amnesty that is concerned. The International Committee for Robot Arms Control has released a statement from 272 engineers, computing and artificial intelligence experts, roboticists, and professionals from related disciplines in 37 countries calling for a ban on the development and deployment of weapon systems that make the decision to apply violent force autonomously without any human control.

Let’s hope the experts who take part in the talks over the next year are listening. Otherwise we risk sleep-walking into a world where the Terminator is a reality.

Meanwhile, drones, the precursor to Killer Robots, remain the centre of controversy. In theory, their accountability should be a lot clearer – the final decision to launch a drone attack is still controlled by a human hand.

However, when ‘errors’ occur it is rare that those responsible are held to account. Take the example of Mamana Bibi. The 67-year-old grandmother was killed by a US drone strike in Pakistan that appeared to have been directly aimed at her on 24 October 2012.

Mamana Bibi, who was picking vegetables in her family’s fields while her grandchildren played nearby, was blasted into pieces before the children’s eyes. Her grandchildren Asma, Nabeela, Safdar, Zubair, Naeema, Samad and Rehman Saeed and his friend Shahidullah were badly injured in the attack. 

Amnesty wants President Obama to explain why and on what legal basis Mamana Bibi was killed and are calling on members of the public sign up to the organisation’s Thunderclap action. On 19 November, Thunderclap will release all tweets and posts at the exact same time to call on President Obama and Congress to ensure justice for Mamana Bibi.

It is a worrying trend. If people like Mamana Bibi can be killed with little recourse, what hope does it offer for a world where Killer Robots are allowed to roam free?

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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