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Why Stopping Killer Robots Is A Battle Worth Fighting
Daniel Faggella   Feb 17, 2016   Ethical Technology  

In the 1980s, the movies Terminator and Robocop introduced the world to the concept of the killer robot. While those films and others represented the peak of science fiction for many in the 80s and 90s, in reality, the militarization of robots and development of automated weapons systems has been going on for more than 15 years, according to Researcher and Activist Noel Sharkey. That buildup of weapons, he believes, poses a great danger to society.

Sharkey noted that the majority of the larger nations in the world, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, Russia, South Korea, China and others, have developed a vast array of defensive, robotic weapons. While the majority of these weapons are controlled by humans, they also offer an autonomous operation mode, which he believes is the deadly “switch” that threatens global security.

“There’s so much talk about a person in the loop. In the U.S. Department of Defense Guideline 3000.9 field D directive, they say they’ll always make sure there’s an appropriate level of human judgment. The U.K. government has said they’ll make sure there’s always a human in the loop somewhere, and that sounds okay, but where?” Sharkey said. “What do they mean‘appropriate levels of human judgment’?” 

Even with the assurance of human judgment in the loop, Sharkey looks at military documents and foresees a number of scenarios where, with communications jammed, human judgment could allow a weaponized robot to complete its mission autonomously. To head off that threat, he’s pushing for an international agreement among nations to ban these weapons. Stuart Russell of University of California Berkeley has been another vocal proponent on the issue of autonomous weapons, describing the idea of robots tracking and killing humans as “repulsive.”

To further that goal, Sharkey helped found the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC), for which he serves as Chairman. While the initial goal of ICRAC was to encourage discussion within the international community, the group has since joined with a number of other non-government organizations, such as the Nobel Women’s Initiative, Human Rights Watch, and others to form the “Campaign To Stop Killer Robots.” Proponents are using the initiative as a way to communicate with and encourage the United Nations toward fulfilling the goal of putting an end to autonomous weapons.

“We launched that in 2013 in April and very soon after that, with all these people on board, we had the power to go and knock on doors, to talk to ambassadors, and to talk to delegations. We talked to the French ambassador who, at this point, was head of the committee called CCW (Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons) at the UN. That committee is empowered to ban certain classes of weapons,” Sharkey said. “We (then) talked to the head of the US delegation and we met with the DOD and various representations, and they said they would help us get this through to the CCW. This is probably the hottest topic now in disarmament circles, so we’re moving forward with it. Definitely not quickly, but it is moving forward.” 

Getting the issue of a ban on robotic weapons before the CCW is one thing, Sharkey noted, but ultimately, it will be up to the ambassadors to thrash out an agreement or treaty. Then, the bigger task becomes insuring that every nation complies with whatever ban or treaty is created. That enforcement will have to cover not only the use of robotic weapons, but also prevent their proliferation by banning their exports, he said.

Sharkey noted that once a ban is enacted, it will be up to the world’s larger powers to stigmatize and sanction any nation that violates the treaty. Insuring compliance might still prove difficult, he said, but having a treaty in place that’s not perfect will still be better than not having one at all.

“Some might say it stops our soldiers being killed (and) it means that robots could fight robots and save people’s lives. People talk about them being used ethically and they say silly things like, ‘Robots won’t seek revenge. They won’t get angry. They won’t commit rape. They’ll do what they’re told,” Sharkey said. “When people say this kind of thing, they’re forgetting that what you’re talking about here is a weapon. The same people who would seek revenge and get angry, the same people who would use rape as a weapon of war, would now have a new weapon to help them in these endeavors.”

Sharkey noted the rationale for more robotic weapons in the future is that military technology and modern weaponry now move too fast for humans to keep up. As that technology has thus far proven to be unreliable and prone to hacks and bugs, the risk of triggering an accidental conflict is too high to ignore.

“At this kind of high speed, these systems meet each other, accidentally trigger a war and it’s all over before a lot of us know about it and a lot of people have died. This is a very dangerous state of affairs and it is very short sighted for people to put the blinkers on,” Sharkey said. “They’re not thinking of the implications for global security for our planet. I’m not so much worried about super intelligent robots becoming conscious and taking over the world. What I’m worried about is just pure automation of the military, so you’ve got automated warfare, which is not going to end well for anybody. It’s just going to end in tears.” 


Daniel Faggella is the founder of TechEmergence, and blogs at

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