The United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons debated the question of banning autonomous weapons at its once-every-five-years review meeting in Geneva Dec. 13-17, 2021, but didn’t reach consensus on a ban. Established in 1983, the convention has been updated regularly to restrict some of the world’s cruelest conventional weapons, including land mines, booby traps and incendiary weapons.
Autonomous weapon systems are robots with lethal weapons that can operate independently, selecting and attacking targets without a human weighing in on those decisions. Militaries around the world are investing heavily in autonomous weapons research and development. The U.S. alone budgeted US$18 billion for autonomous weapons between 2016 and 2020.
I see four primary dangers with autonomous weapons. The first is the problem of misidentification. When selecting a target, will autonomous weapons be able to distinguish between hostile soldiers and 12-year-olds playing with toy guns? Between civilians fleeing a conflict site and insurgents making a tactical retreat?
The problem here is not that machines will make such errors and humans won’t. It’s that the difference between human error and algorithmic error is like the difference between mailing a letter and tweeting. The scale, scope and speed of killer robot systems – ruled by one…