In a welcome shift, Canada makes banning killer robots a foreign policy priority

Cesar Jaramillo Emerging Technologies

By Cesar Jaramillo

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 41 Issue 1 Spring 2020

It sounds like the stuff of science fiction. Enabled by significant advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, fully autonomous weapons systems with the ability to select targets and employ lethal force with no human involvement—also known as killer robots—may soon emerge.

Such a technological and military revolution would change not only the conduct, but the very perception of war. The impact has been likened in magnitude to the invention of gunpowder in 9th-century China or the development of the first nuclear weapon during the Second World War.

The emergence of autonomous weapons systems could offer some benefits, supporters often claim. But the risks of misuse and abuse are horrifying. The international community must act swiftly and decisively in developing robust, multilateral regulation. And Canada could play a leading role.

The mandate letter issued last December to Minister of Foreign Affairs François-Philippe Champagne specifically directs him to “advance international efforts to ban the development and use of fully autonomous weapons systems.”

International civil society, including the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, and thousands of people employed in high tech are already calling for a preemptive ban on fully autonomous weapons systems. Since 2014, the nucleus of the ban debate has been at the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva, Switzerland. These talks, however, have failed to yield any concrete plan for negotiations on a preemptive prohibition. The reason: not everyone supports the ban idea.

States including Austria and Brazil are openly supportive. Russia has opposed attempts at regulation, including such non-legally binding measures as codes of conduct. France and the Netherlands are among those taking a wait-and-see approach, arguing that it is too early to know how the technology will evolve and thus it is premature to speak of a ban. So far, Canada has seemed to be part of this last group.

But the new mandate to the Foreign Minister provides an opportunity for Canada to assume a leading role on this consequential issue. Canada could reclaim the place it once held as an international leader in multilateral arms control, build on the legacy of the Ottawa Process that resulted in the Landmines Treaty two decades ago, and advance the rules-based international order promoted by the Trudeau government.

In June, Canada could have the chance to advocate for the ban, if the new round of CCW discussions on autonomous weapons takes place. It should join those calling for the prompt start of negotiations or at least the establishment of a concrete timeline. In preparation for these meetings, Canada should let allies and partners know that it has made the pursuit of a preemptive ban a foreign policy priority. And it can start to develop domestic policy that is consistent with this objective.

A legal prohibition would bolster international law and serve to clarify the norms for tomorrow’s battlefield. It would inform military doctrine and rules of engagement by establishing common international norms around acceptable uses of artificial intelligence in military systems. At the core of this effort would be the recognition that the employment of lethal force must always remain under human control.

The thorny legal and ethical issues around the current use of lethal force by armed drones remain essentially unresolved. Questions concerning compliance with international humanitarian law, as well as legal and ethical accountability, are dramatically more complex in the case of killer robots.

For example, if an autonomous weapons system engages and kills a human target, who is to be held ultimately responsible? The coder who worked on its algorithms? The military commander who deployed it? The developer of facial recognition software that was employed in determining the target?

Multilateral arms control efforts have traditionally occurred only after a certain category of weapons has been deployed and its destructive effects experienced. The window to avoid the consequences of the widespread deployment of fully autonomous weapons systems is still open—but only barely. Research into autonomy and artificial intelligence is advancing rapidly, threatening to leave policymakers in the dust.

Canada has the unique opportunity to lead in the negotiation of a strong legal regime to prohibit autonomous weapons. Minister Champagne has a clear mandate, which reflects the gravity of the threat, as well as the urgency of an effective policy response. If he champions the ban in good faith and can rally international support for a multilateral negotiation process, he might just make the most consequential Canadian contribution to arms control since the Ottawa Process.

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