On 21 October 2019, the Permanent Mission of Austria together with the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots hosted a First Committee side event, “The urgent need for a treaty to retain meaningful human control over the use of force”.
Ms. Mary Wareham, moderator and Coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, opened the panel discussion by informing the audience of a global coalition that consisted of 160 organizations working to ban killer robots. She stressed that the issue of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) is a very serious threat to humanity. Ms. Wareham then expressed her gratitude to the UN for allowing the Robot Campaigner into the UN.
Ms. Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, opened her remarks by stating that the UN had allowed the robot to come to the UN because he was not a killer robot but a friendly campaigner.
Ms. Nakamitsu explained that Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems, or LAWs, are of the upmost importance to the Secretary General, who had stressed that machines with the power and discretion to take lives without human involvement were politically unacceptable and should be prohibited by international law. Additionally, Ms. Nakamitsu informed the audience that the discussion and outcomes of the group of governmental experts under the auspices of the Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) had revealed strong convergence that the use of force must be reflected by human intention.
Ms. Nakamitsu stated that in the absence of understanding how each country’s laws reflect this issue, there was a need for work to be done on the normative framework of law. She stated that there remained key areas of differences amongst states and hoped that the CCW Group of Governmental Experts could narrow the divergence leading up to the next CCW Review Conference in 2021.
Ms. Nakamitsu stated that the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs would be ready to provide assistance. She added that civil society had played a leading role in providing impotence to the diplomatic process.
Ms. Nakamitsu was pleased to see women, youth and the private sector on the panel, which put into action the call in the Secretary-General’s agenda to ensure all relevant constituents are included in disarmament discussions. Ms. Nakamitsu closed her remarks by reminding the audience of the importance of continued cooperation given the rapid developments in the field.
Ms. Liz O’Sullivan, International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC), stressed that there is a sincere lack of regulation governing the application of artificial intelligence in the areas of law enforcement and the military. Ms. O’Sullivan explained that there were two types of weapons systems defined by the tech community, “humans in the loop”, versus “humans on the loop”. The first term refers to the human component as part of the decision-making process to pull the trigger. The second term refers to the weapons system having autonomy in the decision to pull the trigger, while the human oversees the process. She stated that the latter was unacceptable for six main reasons:
- Algorithmic bias – algorithms are fed by data that inevitably reflect various social biases, which, if applied in weapons, could cause people with certain profiles to be targeted disproportionately.
- Vulnerability to hacking – manufacturers could implant malicious technology and systems could be vulnerable to cyber-attacks.
- Morality and human context – machines are unable to infer traits about humans. The machine’s lack of understanding of context could also be problematic.
- Escalation – many countries are competing for market share in the international arms trade. The result could lead to thousands of machines that can compete with one another, changing the paradigm of war. Furthermore, less exposure to loss of domestic soldiers could lower political thresholds for resorting to the use of force.
- Machines are brittle – machine-learning algorithms are vulnerable to so-called adversarial attacks in which minor modifications to data inputs can trick them in ways no human would ever be fooled.
- Robot on robot violence would be indiscriminate in its destructive power – this could lead them to destroy public works, monuments or museums.
In conclusion, Ms. O’Sullivan expressed the opinion that that LAWs have the potential to be used as weapons of mass destruction.
Ms. Mariana Sanz, Youth Campaigner, stressed that the development of LAWs would put civilians at more risk. She stated that, most likely, these weapons would be used within her lifetime and the thought of such a future terrified her. She implored the audience to take action now and added that waiting for today’s youth to reach positions of power would be too late.
Ms. Jody Williams, 1997 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, urged for the negotiation of a treaty that bans the use of autonomous weapons that can target and kill humans. She called upon countries who had already spoken out against the development of such systems to come together and start a movement towards a treaty. She called on the CCW to ban LAWS.
Photos and text by Leila Hmaidan