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« When Robots Are Not Just About Autonomy - Remote Platform Targeted Killing | Main | Wired UK »

More Thoughts On Robots and IHL

As with everyone else who has commented, I too very much enjoyed Wired for War. I had many thoughts as I read through it, but I'll offer only one to start with (as a way of ensuring that I actually get started!)

My reactions to questions of IHL, the Laws of War and robotics were rather different than those of Peter in the book (pp. 383-388) and even more so by Charli here at CTLab ("the mind-blowing absence of a policy position on battlefield robotics by leading human rights and humanitarian law organizations, including the guardian of the Geneva Conventions, the International Committee of the Red Cross"). I'm not convinced that the IHL implications are all that profound at present, or are likely to be so any time very soon.

Weapons that kill without a human in the loop have been with us for many decades, most evidently in land and naval mines—the former only partly treaty-limited (anti-personnel, but not anti-tank mines), and the latter only in the general IHL sense of requiring proportionality and a degree of discrimination in their effects. The key issue from an IHL point of view is whether advances in robotics will increase lethality without a corresponding increase in discrimination in such a way that would raise questions as to their general acceptability within the normative and legal framework that shapes contemporary warfare.

To date we've seen no evidence that this is the case, or that it is likely to do so any time soon. On the contrary, we've seen a general reduction in the degree of collateral damage associated with "smart weapon" usage.

I would also argue that issues of command and national responsibility are as clear in the case of remotely piloted weapons as they are with those that are directly targeted and fired. Even with regard to AI-driven weapons, it doesn't pose much of an intellectual challenge to see how these fit within current international legal principles: if you deploy a weapons system that is, by design or predictable defect, prone to kill indiscriminately, you are in grave breach of international conventions.

Now, I'm not a technological pollyanna believing that this will inevitably always be the effect of robotics on war. However, I don't see the trend-lines that suggest the issue will come up and bite us any time soon (V'ger, Skynet or Cylon-style). Consequently, if I were to make a list of the pressing issues for IHL at the moment I doubt that robotic weapons systems would place as a terribly high priority on it.

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