The mandate letter of Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs François-Philippe Champagne, released on December 13, 2019, included an important—and welcome—directive on autonomous weapons. Mr. Champagne was instructed to “advance international efforts to ban the development and use of fully autonomous weapons systems.” Canada now has a real opportunity to show leadership.
Since 2014, Canada has been more an observer than a participant in the multilateral discussions that have taken place at the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) on the development of autonomous weapons or killer robots, which are capable of selecting and engaging targets without human control. While fully autonomous weapons systems do not yet exist, experts agree that they could soon.
What happens next? How will Canada respond when CCW discussions on this issue resume in June?
Here are four points that the Canadian government will need to explore to ensure it truly is supporting efforts to achieve a ban.
1. Canada must clearly state its view on human control.
The vast majority of countries at the CCW discussions agree that decisions over human life must remain firmly under human control. The sticking point has been defining and delineating the exact parameters of such control. Most countries oppose situations in which human operators simply accept commands from a weapons systems. Canada should build on this widespread desire to maintain effective human control.
First, however, Canada must begin developing a clear national policy on autonomous weapons. Canada’s past position, often repeated at UN discussions, can be summed up in one sentence from its Strong, Secure and Engaged defence policy: “The Canadian Armed Forces is committed to maintaining appropriate human involvement in the use of military capabilities that can exert lethal force.” The meaning of “appropriate” in this context is anybody’s guess. But it seems that there could be instances in which human involvement would not be seen to be necessary.
At the June meetings, Canada must openly support the idea of meaningful human control, particularly the critical need for human decision-making in the selection and engagement of targets. The term “meaningful” is key. Working with colleagues from likeminded states, such as Austria, the Canadian delegation will need to explore how the idea of significant human control is best captured.
2. Canada must build support for a ban, both at the international level and at home.
Discussions at CCW have been contentious. And while some 30 countries support a preemptive ban, some powerful countries oppose it.
Russia, along with some other countries, tries to obstruct any efforts to regulate. China claims to support a ban on offensive uses, but sees useful defensive functions, as it continues investing in new technologies with growing autonomy.
Some of Canada’s traditional allies oppose a ban. The Australians extol the beneficial uses of autonomous weapons and are spending close to 5 million AUD on research that will lead to recommendations on the design of ethical killing machines. The United States and the United Kingdom focus on the benefits of autonomous weapons systems for both soldiers and civilians. France and Germany argued for a set of principles that countries would adopt, presumably in place of a new international agreement.
Canada’s new support of a ban will also likely get pushback at home—even within the federal government. The Department of National Defence, for example, might feel constrained by any prohibition on new technologies. Autonomous weapons tend to appeal to militaries because they are seen as force multipliers that allow fighting at machine-speed. Still, the risks of unpredictable and uncontrollable weapons systems should be of concern to the Canadian armed forces.
To be clear, the proposed prohibition is on a very specific category of weapons: those that function without any human control. Many other new technologies that preserve essential human control would not be impacted by a ban. Canada must ensure that the focus of the ban is not obscured.
3. Canada should align with legal experts who contend that existing international humanitarian law is not a sufficient response to fully autonomous weapons systems.
In the past, Canada, along with the Netherlands, has said that existing international laws are sufficient to address the challenges posed by diminishing human control over weapons systems.
However, the International Committee of the Red Cross and a majority of legal experts argue that greater clarity on the level of human control is required. New international law is needed to ensure that human beings control the critical functions of weapons systems, particularly the selection and engagement of targets.
International humanitarian law applies to humans, not algorithms. If an algorithm makes a decision, how is responsibility for the action determined? Which human must be considered in charge? The officer in command of the unit employing the weapons system, even if they did not make any decision? What if the algorithm is aiding the decision to the point that the human operator is merely approving the attack?
So far, states have not come to any agreement on how the laws of war apply in these cases. Canada should take the position that only a new legally binding instrument can respond to these concerns. Codes of conduct or principles are not enough.
4. Canada should promote the ban at new forums.
Action at the CCW requires consensus. This means that a few countries can obstruct any agreement. Canada should work with other likeminded states, including the 30 countries that already support a preemptive ban, to explore options to continue the discussion in a different forum, if the current deadlock continues.
Going forward, Canada must dedicate more resources and attention to this file. Countries such as Brazil and Japan, for example, are hosting symposiums and planning international conferences on autonomous weapons and military applications of artificial intelligence. Canada should convene similar meetings, drawing on the substantial expertise on robotics and AI that is developing at various tech centres across the country.
In November 2017, 200 Canadian AI experts and researchers signed a letter urging the Canadian government to take action on autonomous weapons. These experts and others across the legal, policy, and civil society communities have followed the international discussions and are well positioned to contribute to government efforts at the international level.
The prospect of an arms race in fully autonomous systems is real. The consequences would be deadly.
Canada’s decision to support an international ban on such systems is to be applauded. It is not too late for Canada to lead the way in getting that ban. Such an effort will face difficulties on the international stage and at home, but success will provide a greater measure of safety for all.