How should Canada respond to the threat of killer robots?

Conventional Weapons, Emerging Technologies, News

Lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS), more commonly known as killer robots, are an emerging topic in international security discussions. These weapons would be able to target, select, and kill without any human input.

There is still debate about the timeframe for the development of LAWS, with some experts suggesting that such technology is only a few years away, while others claim that it will take decades to build these systems. However, increasing autonomy in already developed weapons systems indicates a current need for regulation.

Most countries agree that fully autonomous weapons should not be developed and that some element of human control or oversight should be present in all weapons systems. The global Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a coalition of 61 civil society organizations, including Mines Action Canada and Project Ploughshares, has called for a ban of fully autonomous weapons.

Supporting this call, scholar and ethicist Wendell Wallach has argued for recognition that “machines picking targets and initiating lethal and nonlethal force are not just a bad idea, but also mala in se [evil in itself].” Leading scientists and innovators, among them Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, have signed an open letter that states that weaponizing artificial intelligence will lead to a global arms race and support a ban on weapons that operate “beyond meaningful human control.”

Political analysts have suggested that the concept of meaningful human control should guide the development of new technologies and serves as a useful global norm. This notion of human control and LAWS was discussed at the April 11-15 meeting of experts at the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons in Geneva, Switzerland. Canada was among the 94 countries present.

While 14 countries thus far have called for a ban on fully autonomous weapons systems,Canada, along with other countries, has decided to take a more restrained approach. The countries at CCW recommended the creation of a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) to further explore the topic; the final decision on the recommendation will be made at the CCW’s Fifth Review Conference this December.

At the April meetings, Canadian representatives were clear that, although they were worried by the increased autonomy of weapons systems, they did not wish to impact the development of dual-use technology. In other words, much of the technology that would be used to develop LAWS would be developed for other purposes, including civilian uses. Canada has also asked for clarification of the notion of meaningful human control by the GGE.

Concerns about the effects of a ban on dual-use technology are understandable but overstated. At the April meeting and in wider discussions, engineers and robotics experts suggest that the “kill” button or algorithm in fully autonomous weapons systems is not needed in future developments of robotics and civilian technology. One such engineering firm, Waterloo-based robotics company, Clearpath Robotics, has taken a stand against the creation of fully autonomous weapons systems.

Both industry and government must address the threat of killer robots. Companies such as Clearpath Robotics have taken the lead and other tech companies should follow. Now is the time for the Canadian government to also show leadership at the UN by supporting the ban on fully autonomous weapons.

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