Steve Wright is a Reader in the Politics and International Relations Group at Leeds Beckett University and a member of the International Campaign for Armed Robot Control.
The Campaign Against Killer Robots‘ terrifying new short film “Slaughterbots” predicts a new age of warfare and automated assassinations, if weapons that decide for themselves who to kill are not banned. The organisation hopes to pressure theUN to outlaw lethal robots under the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), which has previously banned antipersonnel landmines, cluster munitions and blinding lasers on the battlefield.
Some have suggested that the new film is scaremongering. But the technologies needed to build such autonomous weapons – intelligent targeting algorithms, geo-location, facial recognition – are already with us. Many existing lethal drone systems only operate in a semi-autonomous mode because of legal constraints and could do much more if allowed. It won’t take much to develop the technology so it has the capabilities shown in the film.
Perhaps the best way to see the film is less a realistic portrayal of how this technology will be used without a ban and more a wake-up call about how it could change conflicts. For some time to come, small arms and light weapons will remain the major instruments of political violence. But the film highlights how the intelligent targeting systems supposedly designed to minimise causalities could be used for a selective cull of an entire city. It’s easy to imagine how this might be put to use in a sectarian or ethnic conflict.
No international ban on inhumane weapons is absolutely watertight. The cluster munitions treaty has not prevented Russia from using them in Syria, or Saudi Arabia bombing Yemeni civilians with old British stock. But the landmine treaty has halved the estimated number of casualties – and even some of those states that have not ratified the ban, such as the US, now act as if they have. A ban on killer robots could have a similar effect.
Similarly, a ban might not remove all chance of terrorists using these weapons. The international arms market is too promiscuous. But it would remove potential stockpiles of killer robots by forcing governments to limit their manufacture.
Some have argued armed robotic systems might actually help reduce suffering in war since they don’t get tired, abuse captives, or act in self-defence or revenge. They believe that autonomous weapons could be programmed to uphold international law better than humans do.
But, as Prof Noel Sharkey of the International Campaign for Armed Robot Control points out, this view is based on the fantasy of robots being super smart terminators when today “they have the intelligence of a fridge”. While the technology to enable killer robots exists, without the technology to restrain them, a ban is our best hope of avoiding the kind of scenario shown in the film.