Will the U.N. ban “Killer Robots"?

Will the U.N. Ban “Killer Robots”?

Will the U.N. Ban “Killer Robots”?

The World
How It Works
Nov. 20 2013 2:05 PM

Will the U.N. Ban “Killer Robots”?

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A mock "killer robot" stands in central London on April 23, 2013, during the launch of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which calls for the ban of weapons that would be able to select and attack targets without any human intervention.

Photo by Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images

The parties to the unfortunately named U.N. Convention on Conventional Weapons recently voted in Geneva to take up the issue of “lethal autonomous weapons systems,” also known as “killer robots,” in its agenda for next year.

Fully autonomous robots should not be confused with remotely piloted drones. As Voice of America notes, “Fully autonomous weapons do not yet exist. The activists, however, say several robotic systems with various degrees of autonomy and lethality are in use by Britain, Israel, the United States and South Korea. They say other nations, such as China and Russia, are believed to be moving toward these systems.”

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For more on the issue, check out this interview with an artificial-intelligence expert on why these weapons could be so dangerous, or this take by Brad Allenby on why the “killer robot” framing is misleading.

So does the CCW’s decision to take up the robots issue mean they could soon go the way of chemical weapons, cluster munitions, and landmines as weapons disapproved of to a greater or lesser extent by the international community? Political scientist Charli Carpenter is skeptical, writing, “Most of the weapons the [CCW] treaty covers have been regulated rather than banned outright. And the institution’s consensus-based decision-making process makes it easy for veto players to water down new normative understandings.”

It’s also worth remembering that chemical weapons were “banned” by international treaty almost two decades before they were used to such disastrous effect in World War I. 

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and author of the forthcoming book, Invisible Countries.