The Future of Autonomous Weaponry: A Student’s Perspective

By Tyler Bloom

The 21st century is marked by technological advancements – like the internet – that have changed the way we live and have made the world more connected. As a result of these advancements, particularly with the internet, privacy laws have changed to adapt to the new norms in order to ensure that technology does not harm citizens. While previously we have had to create laws to adapt to new technologies, in the case of the development of autonomous weaponry it is important that we pre-emptively create laws to limit the negative impacts associated with these technologies. This requires lawmakers to have an in-depth understanding of the technologies and their implications, otherwise they will not be able to effectively legislate.

“How does [hateful information about me] show up on a 7-year-olds iPhone?” asked Iowa representative Steve King (R) to Google CEO Sundar Pichai during his congressional testimony.

The quote above demonstrates the blatant lack of understanding of technology by a U.S. lawmaker. Representative Steve King, 69, asking the CEO of Google about an iPhone problem, which is a product of a different company, is the epitome of not understanding how technology works. This fundamental lack of understanding of technology is troubling. How can we trust lawmakers to create effective laws to limit the negative impacts of more advanced technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) when they don’t even understand basic technology like their cellphones?

The fact is, we have a role to play too. Modern issues require modern solutions, and it’s up to us to hold lawmakers accountable and ensure that they understand the implications of new technologies.

One such technology that is under development is fully autonomous systems. These systems could be used as weapons of war, for surveillance, policing, and border control, giving the government more control over the lives of citizens. Fully autonomous weapons could be drones and other remote controlled vehicles that are programmed to target certain groups indiscriminately without human intervention. While these systems aren’t in use yet, it is an urgent issue that we create legislation to limit their negative impact. If not, the ramifications of this technology would be widespread. Employing autonomous weapons systems increases the possibility that innocent civilians would be harmed during wartime, as well as increases capability for the government to surveil its population. It is important that we maintain a human perspective while in times of conflict to limit these ramifications.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is an international coalition of more than 100 non-governmental organisations across 54 countries working to pre-emptively ban the use of fully autonomous weapons systems. As this technology is developed, international and national lawmakers must work to create a legal framework to ensure that its applications are limited.

This is where students come in. We have grown up in the age of technology, and normally have a very strong grasp on understanding new technology and the implications of it. We are the students of today, but we’ll also be the lawmakers of tomorrow. Because of this, it makes sense to have us involved in the decision making at this early stage, to ensure that a comprehensive legal framework is implemented for this new technology.

You may be wondering, “How can I get involved?” It’s simple! There are lots of ways that students can effectively get involved in spreading the word about the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, many of which are enabled by modern technology.

Reaching out to your Member of Parliament (MP)/Representative: Writing letters can be a great way to make your MP aware of an issue that you are passionate about. Students can outline their concerns about this new technology and share them with their MP. A well-written letter or email forces the MP to take a critical look at the issue, and if enough people reach out, then they will realize the importance of the issue and act.

Social Media: In the 21st century, social media has been very effective in spreading messages and pushing through change. Media sites such as Twitter or Facebook are very useful tools in spreading information on the Campaign on a national level, which would help more students and citizens get involved. As a first step, you can follow the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots on Twitter at @BanKillerRobots, on Facebook or Instagram at @StopKillerRobots. You can also use the hashtags #KillerRobots #StudentsAgainstKillerRobots #AutonomousWeapons to get involved in the conversation! You can also follow the Campaign on YouTube!

On-Campus Events: What better way to get students engaged than by offering food to them? Students who wish to get involved can get together and host a bake sale or a pizza party to raise awareness on campus for the Campaign. This can be achieved by creating on-campus Campaign representatives across Canada. These reps would be involved in promoting the Campaign on campus, whether it be through events, flyers, class engagements, or other activities. This would be an excellent method to ensure that hundreds of students have daily exposure to the Campaign.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots has been working hard to spread their message and to get support for a ban on fully autonomous weaponry. As students, we are the future of our world and are also well versed in technology, and as such, we should be involved in the decision making. We will make a difference in creating effective policy to ensure that this ever-evolving technology is properly regulated. If you would like more information please do not hesitate to reach out to the Campaign on social media!

Tyler Bloom interned at Mines Action Canada as the Campaign Assistant for the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots between January-April 2019. Tyler is an undergraduate student studying Political Science at the University of Ottawa.