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Automated killer robot development should be paused, says UN report

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Raytheon Phalanx weapons system
Raytheon Phalanx weapons system

A United Nations report published online this week says the UN should get countries of the world to suspend development of robotic, fully automated weapons systems until "such time as an internationally agreed upon framework" is reached. The report was prepared by Christof Heyns, a UN human rights lawyer, and its due to be debated at the UN Human Rights Council later this month. Still, the current version of the report provides a window into the UN's thinking on what will come next after an era of remotely piloted drones, presenting an alarming vision of a dystopian near future. "Tireless war machines, ready for deployment at the push of a button, pose the danger of permanent (if low-level) armed conflict," Heyns writes in the report.

"danger of permanent (if low-level) armed conflict."

To be clear, the report isn't all negative on these types of technologies, what Heyns calls "lethal autonomous robotics (LRAs)," which it defines as systems capable of identifying targets and firing without any human control. Indeed, the author Heyns recognizes "robots may in some respects serve humanitarian purposes," noting that "future generations of robots may be able to employ less lethal force, and thus cause fewer unnecessary deaths." Heyns also acknowledges that no governments or militaries have officially admitted to wanting to use fully autonomous killer robots in wartime — yet.

But he also points to the rapid advancement and usage of semi-autonomous technologies, including remotely piloted drones used by the US, an anti-ship missile system developed by Raytheon for the US Navy, and the robotic turrets developed by Samsung's defense subsidiary for the South Korean military, and says documents indicate many countries are moving forward beyond these systems.

"risks taking humanity out of the loop."

Overall, the report is a grim, cautionary, if poetic plea to countries of the world to pause in developing such weapons systems further, until there is an international consensus on using them ethically. Heyns cites philosopher Peter Asaro's work and says "Taking humans out of the loop also risks taking humanity out of the loop." If fully automated killer robots are used indiscriminately, Heyns worries they "may seriously undermine the ability of the international legal system to preserve a minimum world order." It remains to be seen if other members of the UN agree or not. We'll know more after the full report is released May 29th.

Correction: This post originally referred to the report as a draft because the final presentation is not due to occur until May 29th, but the version published online this week is the final and complete one, according to a UN advisor.