UN agrees to discuss regulations on lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) in 2017

89 Nations have agreed to establish a group of governmental experts on lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) to address challenges posed by such weapons.


Every five years, the 123 member nations of the international Convention on Conventional Weapons meet for a review conference. The fifth review conference took place between 12 and 16 December, 2016 at Geneva and was presided over by Ambassador Tehmina Janjua from Pakistan. 89 Nations have agreed to establish a group of governmental experts on lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) to address challenges posed by such weapons.

There are no fully autonomous weapons systems as yet, but the technology would soon be possible. The concerns over machines that are capable of killing humans, without a human controller or human oversight. Nineteen additional nations joined in the call to ban laws, including Argentina, China and Peru. The countries agreed to meet in 2017 to discuss the future of Laws. The meeting will be chaired by the Indian representative on disarmament, Ambassador Amandeep Singh Gill.

Human Rights Watch first raised the issue of Laws before the international community in its report titled Losing Humanity: The Case against Killer Robots. Concerns raised include compliance with laws, human empathy which acts as a check on indiscriminate killings in times of conflict, the potential of such weapons being controlled by dictators who use them against the local population, and the accountability of autonomous weapons systems.

There are broadly three kinds of Laws. Human-in-the-loop weapons require humans to pick targets and command the robot to use lethal force. Human-on-the-loop weapons pick targets and choose to use lethal force autonomously, but humans can monitor and intervene if necessary. Humans-out-of-the-loop weapons are fully autonomous, and can pick targets as well as make the choice to use lethal force without inputs from human operators. The Humans Rights Watch wants all three kinds of Laws to be regulated.

According to the Report of the 2016 Informal Meeting of Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (PDF), while all the parties agreed that such weapons do not yet exist, there was debate on whether the weapons would be developed in the near term future or the long term future. Representatives of some countries stressed that there were no plans to ever build such killer robots. Many delegations noted that it was ethically unacceptable to allow robots to take decisions autonomously on using lethal force against humans.

The move is an important step towards the prohibition of killer robots, pre-emptively, before they increase the chances of civilian causalities, according to a report in Human Rights Watch. Steve Goose, arms director of Human Rights Watch, said "The governments meeting in Geneva took an important step toward stemming the development of killer robots, but there is no time to lose. Once these weapons exist, there will be no stopping them. The time to act on a pre-emptive ban is now."

There is a Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, to bring to light the ethics of using Laws, and the regulations needed to keep them in check. An Open Letter by Robotics and AI researchers calls for a ban on autonomous weapons. The letter warns that AI and robotics could be the third revolution in warfare after gunpowder and nuclear weapons, and could turn out disastrous if not checked. The letter is endorsed by Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak, and Noam Chomsky. You can add your name to the letter by signing here.

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