Lethal Autonomous Weapons: An Update from the United Nations
Earlier this month, the United Nations Convention on Conventional Weapons (UN CCW) Group of Governmental Experts met in Geneva to discuss the future of lethal autonomous weapons systems. But before we get to that, here’s a quick recap of everything that’s happened in the last six months.
Slaughterbots and Boycotts
Since its release in November 2017, the video Slaughterbots has been seen approximately 60 million times and has been featured in hundreds of news articles around the world. The video coincided with the UN CCW Group of Governmental Experts’ first meeting in Geneva to discuss a ban on lethal autonomous weapons, as well as the release of open letters from AI researchers in Australia, Canada, Belgium, and other countries urging their heads of state to support an international ban on lethal autonomous weapons.
Over the last two months, autonomous weapons regained the international spotlight. In March, after learning that the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) planned to open an AI weapons lab in collaboration with a major arms company, AI researcher Toby Walsh led an academic boycott of the university. Over 50 of the world’s leading AI and robotics researchers from 30 countries joined the boycott, and in less than a week, KAIST agreed to “not conduct any research activities counter to human dignity including autonomous weapons lacking meaningful human control.” The boycott was covered by CNN and The Guardian.
Additionally, over 3,100 Google employees, including dozens of senior engineers, signed a letter in early April protesting the company’s involvement in a Pentagon program called “Project Maven,” which uses AI to analyze drone imaging. Employees worried that this technology could be repurposed to also operate drones or launch weapons. Citing their “Don’t Be Evil” motto, the employees asked to cancel the project and not to become involved in the “business of war.”
The UN CCW meets again…
In the wake of this growing pressure, 82 countries in the UN CCW met again from April 9-13 to consider a ban on lethal autonomous weapons. Throughout the week, states and civil society representatives discussed “meaningful human control” and whether they should just be concerned about “lethal” autonomous weapons, or all autonomous weapons generally. Here is a brief recap of the meeting’s progress:
- The group of nations that explicitly endorse the call to ban LAWS expanded to 26 (with China, Austria, Colombia, and Djibouti joining during the CCW meeting.)
- However, five states explicitly rejected moving to negotiate new international law on fully autonomous weapons: France, Israel, Russia, United Kingdom, and United States.
- Nearly every nation agreed that it is important to retain human control over autonomous weapons, despite disagreements surrounding the definition of “meaningful human control.”
- Throughout the discussion, states focused on complying with International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Human Rights Watch argued that there already is precedent in international law and disarmament law for banning weapons without human control.
- Many countries submitted working papers to inform the discussions, including China and the United States.
- Although states couldn’t reach an agreement during the meeting, momentum is growing towards solidifying a framework for defining lethal autonomous weapons.
You can find written and video recaps from each day of the UN CCW meeting here, written by Reaching Critical Will.
The UN CCW is slated to resume discussions in August 2018, however, given the speed with which autonomous weaponry is advancing, many advocates worry that they are moving too slowly.
What can you do?
If you work in the tech industry, consider signing the Tech Workers Coalition open letter, which calls on Google, Amazon and Microsoft to stay out of the business of war. And if you’d like to support the fight against LAWS, we recommend donating to the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. This organization, which is not affiliated with FLI, has done amazing work over the past few years to lead efforts around the world to prevent the development of lethal autonomous weapons. Please consider donating here.
If you want to learn more about the technological, political, and social developments of autonomous weapons, check out the Research & Reports page of our Autonomous Weapons website. You can find relevant news stories and updates at @AIweapons on Twitter and autonomousweapons on Facebook.
About the Future of Life Institute
The Future of Life Institute (FLI) is a global non-profit with a team of 20+ full-time staff operating across the US and Europe. FLI has been working to steer the development of transformative technologies towards benefitting life and away from extreme large-scale risks since its founding in 2014. Find out more about our mission or explore our work.