At 10am on a Saturday morning, the last thing you’d expect to be confronted with is the phrase ‘killer robots’. Despite this, it is the topic Angela Kane, former UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, chose to so poignantly dissect to kick of day 2 of WES 2019. During her time in office, Ms Kane was at the forefront of promoting the legal issues surrounding killer robots, namely who and when humans can be held accountable for the actions of an autonomous machine.
Fully autonomous weapons could decide who lives or who dies without the interaction of a human, and that crosses a moral line
When you think of killer robots, your mind may be tricked into thinking about Arnold Schwarzenegger swaggering around in The Terminator, his body absorbing bullets in a seemingly indestructible fashion. The reality is, unfortunately, nothing like Hollywood tends to portray it. What Angela Kane was referring to when she mentioned killer robots at the start of her speech was the use of artificial intelligence systems in weapons and surveillance technology. The key aspect of these technologies that we must be careful of, according to Ms Kane, is their ability to make decisions without the input of a human. Not only does this complicate the legality of accountability, but it also borders on unethical. “Fully autonomous weapons could decide who lives or who dies without the interaction of a human, and that crosses a moral line”, said Ms Kane, who also noted that there are still no legally binding laws to govern these killer robots. Unfortunately, this may be thanks to the UNs inability to come to a consensus.
“My generation was one of activists. We grew up in the midst of the Vietnam War and the second-wave Feminist movement”, noted Ms Kane. It maybe because of this that Ms Kane was able to deal so well with the political stand-offs that clouded her time as UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs. The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) is a UN treaty created in 1981 to prohibit the use of certain conventional weapons, and every year meetings take place where members discuss including artificial intelligence and killer robots. Unlike voting in the UN general assembly, amendments to the CCW require a consensus, which means that with 125 signatories that include notorious arch rivals USA and Russia, amendments rarely get approved. To this day, the UN has still failed to reach a consensus regarding the legality and use of killer robots in warfare and defence.
Ms Kane also believes young people can play an important role, “Go and vote. Make your voices heard even though they may not always be followed”
Ms Kane did not shy away from alluding to her frustration, “Even the AI experts have begun to give up on CCW meetings, they don’t come anymore because they think diplomats are too hard to deal with”. According to Ms Kane, even the UK Ministry of Defence has no intention of changing their definition of autonomous weapons, a step which would be necessary if wider legislation is to be introduced in the UN. Whilst this may seem very ‘doom and gloom’, there is an upside. “The voices in favour of the ban on killer robots are getting louder and numerous”, stated Ms Kane, referring particularly to the outrage that came from Google’s own employees against its Maven project. Project Maven was a partnership with the US pentagon in developing AI surveillance technologies to be used to improve drone targeting. This caused outrage amongst employees, with as much as a dozen employees resigning citing that ‘We believe Google should not be in the business of War’.
What needs to change then if we are to make progress on this issue? Firstly, proposed Ms Kane, there needs to be more funding for CCW meetings that allow the UN to bring not only diplomats, but AI and military experts. Secondly, governments and NGOs need to put pressure on large scale manufacturing and investment into such technologies. Ms Kane also believes young people can play an important role, “Go and vote. Make your voices heard even though they may not always be followed”.