Stop killer robots before it's too late, Human Rights Watch warns
People on the ground are dwarfed by a full-size model of Japan's popular robot animation character Gundam standing in front of a new shopping mall in Tokyo's Odaiba waterfront area Tuesday, April 17, 2012. The 18-meter (60-foot)-tall Gundam greets shoppers at Diver City Tokyo Plaza which opens on Thursday. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
Published Wednesday, April 24, 2013 12:28PM EDT
Visions of a sci-fi future where armed robots patrol the Earth and humans live in fear for their lives are realistic enough that Human Rights Watch is calling for a ban on the development of "autonomous weapons" -- while humans still have the upper hand.
The group joined with an international coalition of nongovernmental organizations this week to launch the ominously-named Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.
“Lethal armed robots that could target and kill without any human intervention should never be built,” said Steve Goose, arms division director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.
“A human should always be ‘in-the-loop’ when decisions are made on the battlefield. Killer robots would cross moral and legal boundaries, and should be rejected as repugnant to the public conscience.”
The group launched the campaign at the U.K.'s Houses of Parliament Tuesday – in an announcement that included an adorable, 1960s-style robot.
Also in attendance were Jody Williams, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate for her work to ban anti-personnel landmines, and Dr. Noel Sharley, an artificial intelligence expert from Sheffield University.
The group is hoping the campaign will lead to an international treaty, as well as domestic laws in individual countries that would ban the production of such weapons -- similar to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines launched in 1992 with Human Rights Watch as a founding member.
Paul Hannon, executive director of Mines Action Canada -- a member of the steering committee for the autonomous weapons initiative -- was in London for the launch.
Hannon and his group will spearhead the efforts in Canada.
"From our understanding, Canada does not have a policy on these types of weapons yet and I think it's time a dialogue begins and we create an effective policy on fully autonomous weapons," Hannon said.
"We led the world in getting rid of landmines so we think this is a natural fit for Canada and we look forward to working with the government in coming up with a comprehensive and effective policy."
While the term "killer robots" conjures up images of the Terminator film franchise, for now the group is mainly concerned with the unmanned military drones and armed vehicles currently in use by the world's advanced militaries.
While those weapons still require an actual human being to pull the trigger or push the button to deploy firepower, the group fears that fully automated robotic weaponry is the next likely evolution of the technology.
“We already have a certain amount of autonomy," Sharkey told reporters at the launch. "I think we are already there. If you asked me to go and make an autonomous killer robot today, I could do it. I could have you one here in a few days.”
The group points out that lethal robots would "undermine" traditional battlefield checks and balances to ensure civilians aren't mistakenly killed, and wouldn't have the ability to show compassion to enemy combatants who surrender. Dictators could also deploy such weapons against their own people, the group warns.
“Many militaries are pursuing ever-greater autonomy for weaponry, but the line needs to be drawn now on fully autonomous weapons,” Goose said. “These weapons would take technology a step too far, and a ban is needed urgently before investments, technological momentum, and new military doctrine make it impossible to stop.”
Last fall, the U.S. Department of Defense issued a directive on the development and use of autonomous and semi-autonomous weapons, stating that such "weapon systems shall be designed to allow commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgement over the use of force."
Only fully autonomous systems that employ non-lethal force are currently permitted, according to U.S. DoD Directive #3000.9, unless exemptions are made at the highest level of the military.
Human Rights Watch says the step is a positive one, but more needs to be done.
The campaign's launch comes one month ahead of a United Nations Human Rights Council report on the same subject due to be released in Geneva on May 27.
The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is comprised of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, Nobel Women’s Initiative, Pugwash Conferences on Science & World Affairs, and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and a number of other groups including Mines Action Canada.