Back in the 1980s the group International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War was awarded the Nobel peace prize for its role in helping explain and communicate the full extent of the consequences that would result from a nuclear war.
The group’s efforts were judged key in helping to crystalise international public and government awareness of why such a military escalation should be avoided at all costs. The group is now swinging back into action in an attempt to face down a new threat to humanity – killer robots.
A new arms race has now started between the world’s military powers, which are investing heavily in fully autonomous weapons systems. The rapid developments in AI and other technologies mean that weapons systems will soon be programmable to engage targets and sent off to destroy them autonomously without the need for any further human input. The doctors group believes this kind of killer robot technology to be ‘morally abhorrent’ and is calling on a UN resolution completely banning it.
A UN meeting on the topic starts in Geneva, Switzerland today and the group is calling for a resolution that would bind militaries to halting investment and research on autonomous weapons. Its open letter reads:
“Fully autonomous weapons select and engage targets without human intervention, representing complete automation of lethal harm.
“This ability to selectively and anonymously target groups of people without human oversight would carry dire humanitarian consequences and be highly destabilising. By nature of being cheap and easy to mass produce, lethal autonomous weapons can fall into the hands of terrorists and despots, lower the barriers to armed conflict, and become weapons of mass destruction enabling very few to kill very many.”
Another respected campaign group ‘Scientists Against Inhumane Weapons’, believes the international community should treat autonomous weapons systems in the same way as it has biological and chemical weapons. The group’s spokesperson Emilia Javorsky points out that while there have been isolated instances of these weapons being used, their ban has hugely increased their cost and the stigma attached to them. This has helped limit misuse.
The fear is that the latest technology in the world applied to lethal autonomous weapons would represent a ‘third revolution’ in warfare after the invention of first gunpowder and then nuclear weapons. Once developed, rogue groups would be able to replicate such weapons quickly, cheaply and at scale.
While it is not yet too late to stop the further development of autonomous weapons systems, the window of opportunity, when it will be practically feasible, is closing. If it isn’t achieved before much further investment is made by governments, and the technology used advances further, it will be too late to turn back the clock.
Unfortunately, it looks as though the chances of campaign groups achieving commitment to a blanket ban are slim. The UK, USA and Russia have all already opposed the opening of negotiations on such a treaty.