All the discussions we’ve been having since the launch of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots make me think about Alice in Wonderland and therefore I’ve been thinking a lot about rabbit holes. I feel like current technology has us poised at the edge of a rabbit hole and if we take that extra step and create fully autonomous weapons we are going to fall – down that rabbit hole into the unknown, down into a future where a machine could make the decision to kill you, down into a situation that science fiction books have been warning us about for decades.
The best way to prevent such a horrific fall is going to be to create laws and policies that will block off the entrance to the rabbit hole so to speak. At the moment, not many countries have policies to temporarily block the entrance and no one has laws to ban killer robots and close off the rabbit hole permanently. It is really only the US and the UK who have even put up warning signs and a little bit of chicken wire around the entrance to this rabbit hole of killer robots through recently released policies and statements.
Over the past few weeks our colleagues at Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Article 36 have released reports on the US and UK policies towards fully autonomous weapons (killer robots). HRW analyzed the 2012 US policy on autonomous weapons found in Department of Defense Directive Number 3000.09. You can find the full review online. Article 36 has a lot to say about the UK policy in their paper available online as well.
So naturally after reading these papers, I went in search of Canada’s policy. That search left me feeling a little like Alice lost in Wonderland just trying to keep my head or at least my sanity in the face of a policy that like the Cheshire Cat might not be all there.
After my futile search, it became even more important that we talk to the government to find out if Canada has a policy on fully autonomous weapons. Until those conversations happen, let’s see what we can learn from the US and UK policies and the analysis done by HRW and Article 36.
The US Policy
I like that the US Directive notes the risks to civilians including “unintended engagements” and failure. One key point that Human Rights Watch’s analysis highlights is that the Directive states that for up to 10 years the US Department of Defense can only develop and use fully autonomous weapons that have non-lethal force. The moratorium on lethal fully autonomous weapons is a good start but there are also some serious concerns about the inclusion of waivers that could override the moratorium. HRW believes that “[t]hese loopholes open the door to the development and use of fully autonomous weapons that could apply lethal force and thus have the potential to endanger civilians in armed conflict.”
In summary Human Rights Watch believes that:
"The Department of Defense Directive on autonomy in weapon systems has several positive elements that could have humanitarian benefits. It establishes that fully autonomous weapons are an important and pressing issue deserving of serious concern by the United States as well as other nations. It makes clear that fully autonomous weapons could pose grave dangers and are in need of restrictions or prohibitions. It is only valid for a limited time period of five to ten years, however, and contains a number of provisions that could weaken its intended effect considerably. The Directive’s restrictions regarding development and use can be waived under certain circumstances. In addition, the Directive highlights the challenges of designing adequate testing and technology, is subject to certain ambiguity, opens the door to proliferation, and applies only to the Department of Defense." 
In terms of what this all means for us in Canada, we can see there may be some aspects of the American policy that are worth adopting. The restrictions on the use of lethal force by fully autonomous weapons should be adopted by Canada to protect civilians from harm without the limited time period and waivers. I believe that Canadians would want to ensure that humans always make the final decision about who lives and who dies in combat.
The UK Policy
Now our friends at Article 36 have pointed out the UK situation is a little more convoluted – and they are not quite ready to call it a comprehensive policy but since “the UK assortment of policy-type statements” sounds ridiculous, for the purposes of this post I’m shortening it to the UK almost-policy with the hope that one day it will morph into a full policy. Unlike the US policy which is found in a neat little directive, the UK almost-policy is cobbled together from some statements and a note from the Ministry of Defense.
To sum up Article 36 outlines three main shortcomings of the UK almost-policy:
- The policy does not set out what is meant by human control over weapon systems.
- The policy does not prevent the future development of fully autonomous weapons.
- The policy says that existing international law is sufficient to “regulate the use” of autonomous weapons.
One of the most interesting points that Article 36 makes is the need for a definition of what human control over weapons systems means. If you are like me, you probably think that would be that humans get to make the decision to fire on a target making the final decision of who lives or who dies but we need to know exactly what governments mean when they say that humans will always been in control. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots wants to ensure that there is always meaningful human control over lethal weapons systems.
Defining what we mean by meaningful human control is going to be a very large discussion that we want to have with governments, with civil society, with the military, with roboticists and with everyone else. This discussion will raise some very interesting moral and ethical questions especially since a two-star American general recently said that he thought it was “the ultimate human indignity to have a machine decide to kill you.” The problem is once that technology exists it is going to be incredibly difficult to know where that is going to go and how on earth we are going to get back up that rabbit hole. For us as Canadians it is key to start having that conversation as soon as possible so we don’t end up stumbling down the rabbit hole of fully autonomous weapons by accident.