LAWS – The Next Arms Race

Post written by Adrienne Novak, J.D. ’17, Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University.

As the time nears for the first meeting of the Group of Governmental Experts on lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) at the UN in Geneva, Switzerland, it is important that we understand the philosophies that will drive the discussion, as well as the possible outcomes we can expect from the meeting.

Frank Sauer is a recognized scholar on international human rights law, a senior research fellow and lecturer at Bundeswehr University in Munich, and a member of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC).  Sauer, in his article, Stopping ‘Killer Robots’: Why Now Is the Time to Ban Autonomous Weapons Systems, in Arms Control Today, offers an excellent, comprehensive analysis of the issues surrounding the autonomous weapon systems debate, what can be expected from the meeting in Geneva, as well as his own personal view on the best outcome.  The article is freely accessible online, and may be particularly beneficial for international attorneys, international law students and other academics.

Sauer discusses the four possible outcomes that could arise out of the CCW Group of Governmental Experts meeting.  He states:

The first would be a legally binding and preventive multilateral arms control agreement derived by consensus in the CCW and thus involving the major stakeholders, the outcome referenced as “a ban.”

The second outcome would be restrictions short of a ban … [that] limit the use of autonomous weapons systems, such as permitting their use against materiel only.

The third would be a declaratory, nonbinding agreement on best practices …. emphasiz[ing] compliance with existing international humanitarian law and rigorous weapons review processes, in accordance with Article 36 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions.

Finally, there may be no tangible result, perhaps with one of the technologically leading countries setting a precedent by fielding autonomous weapons systems. That would certainly prompt others to follow, fueling an arms race.

In his analysis, Sauer is clearly a proponent of an outright ban, especially considering that the rapid proliferation of LAWS are near, and if left unchecked, such weapons in the hands of terrorists would be detrimental to international peace, stability and security.  According to Sauer,

This underlines the importance of the current opportunity for putting a comprehensive, verifiable ban in place. The hurdles are high, but at this point, a ban is clearly the most prudent and thus desirable outcome. After all, as long as no one possesses them, a verifiable ban is the optimal solution. It stops the currently commencing arms race in its tracks, and everyone reaps the benefits. A prime goal of arms control would be fulfilled by facilitating the diversion of resources from military applications toward research and development for peaceful purposes—in the fields of AI and robotics no less, two key future technologies.

Personally, I find Sauer’s article to be a clear analysis of the issues and possible outcomes, but disagree with his call for the outright ban.  With the rapid expansion and use of automated systems, the precursor to fully autonomous weapon systems, it is important to understand that it is merely a flip of a switch to change the control mechanism.  I agree fully with Sauer’s comment that

with full autonomy in a weapons system eventually coming down to merely flipping a software switch, how can one tell if a specific system at a specific time is not operating autonomously?

However, I disagree that the outright ban would be the best way to address the international community’s concern because LAWS already exist, though with only limited autonomous capabilities at this time.  But, because they already do exist in limited form, and autonomy in weapons systems is a pursuit already being undertaken by States, militaries, and scientists, such a ban is just not a viable option.  What the international community needs and must do is to tightly regulate these autonomous weapons systems.

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