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Calls Mount for Action on ‘Killer Robots’ After UN Talks

The United Nations is facing mounting pressure to act against weapons systems — likely to be battle ready soon — that can identify and destroy targets without human control.

GENEVA — The United Nations closed the first talks on fully autonomous weapons on Friday, with experts warning that time was running out to set rules for the use of the machines dubbed “killer robots.”

The UN is facing mounting pressure to act against weapons systems — likely to be battle ready soon — that can identify and destroy targets without human control.

The five-day meeting of the UN’s Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) marked an initial step toward an agreed set of rules governing the weapons. 

Twenty-two countries, mostly those with smaller military budgets and lesser technical know-how, have called for an outright ban, arguing that automated weapons are by definition illegal as every individual decision to launch a strike must be made by a human. 

The prospects for a ban treaty remain dim for now, diplomats said. 

But in a statement summing up the discussions, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots pressure group said “a majority of states now accept that some form of human control must be maintained over weapons systems.”

The question now is deciding “what effective human control means in practice,” the head of the Arms Unit at the International Committee of the Red Cross, Kathleen Lawland, told AFP in an email.

The ICRC has not called for a ban, but Lawland warned that some kind of action was needed as the technology was moving fast. 

“Given the rapid development of robotic weapon systems with ever increasing autonomy, the ICRC is convinced that internationally agreed limits are urgently needed to address the fundamental legal and ethical concerns,” she said.

‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’

Academics attending the UN talks said that the glacial pace of the discussions was failing to respond to an emerging threat. 

The “arms race has happened (and) is happening today” said Toby Walsh, an expert on artificial intelligence at the University of New South Wales. 

“These will be weapons of mass destruction,” he added during a side-event at the UN this week. “I am actually quite confident that we will ban these weapons. ... My only concern if whether (nations) have the courage of conviction to do it now, or whether we will have to wait for people to die first.”

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots said a majority of countries now support some kind of “legally-binding instrument,” which was not the case before this week’s meeting. But the group voiced concern about the prospects for the path forward.

A tentative plan for nations to meet on killer robots for just 10 days next year is inadequate to “make significant progress,” the campaign said.

By Ben Simon

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2017

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