Learning from the past, protecting the future

A key lesson learned from the Canadian led initiative to ban landmines is to not wait until there is a global crisis before taking action. Fifteen years after the Ottawa Treaty banning landmines was opened for signatures there has been remarkable success. However, due to the widespread use of the weapon before the ban treaty became international law it has taken a considerable amount of effort and resources to lessen that international crisis down to national problem status. Much work remains, but all the trend lines are positive. With continued political will combined with sustained funding this is a crisis that is solvable.

That lesson of taking action before a global crisis exists was an important factor in the Norwegian led initiative to ban cluster munitions. Although a much more high tech weapon than landmines, cluster munitions have caused unacceptable humanitarian harm when they have been used. The indiscriminate effects and the impact they have on innocent civilians resulted in cluster munitions being banned. Fortunately, cluster bombs have not been as widely used as landmines so the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) is very much a preventive treaty. With tens of millions of cluster submunitions, also known as bomblets, having been destroyed from the stockpiles of states parties to the treaty, the preventive nature of the CCM is already saving countless lives, limbs and livelihoods. However, as with the landmines the use of cluster munitions that had taken place before the treaty came into force means there is much work remaining to clear the existing contamination and the help victims rebuild their shattered lives.

Both landmines and cluster munitions were considered advanced weapons in their day. Landmines were sometimes referred to as the ‘perfect soldier’, but once planted they could not tell the difference between a child or a combatant.  Cluster munitions were a much more expensive and sophisticated weapon than landmines yet once dropped or launched the submunitions dispersed from the carrier munition could not distinguish between a soldier and a civilian. Cluster submunitions also had high failure rates and did not explode upon impact as designed leaving behind de facto minefields.

Both landmines and cluster munitions shared the characteristic of not knowing when the conflict had ended so they continued to kill and injure long after peace had happened. In many cases they continued their destructive tasks decades after hostilities had ceased.

Another characteristic they shared is that once humans were no longer involved, i.e. after planting or firing them, the impact of the weapons became immediately problematic. With no human control over whom the target was or when an explosion would occur resulted in a  weapons that was indiscriminate by nature which was a key factor in the movements to ban them.

Today in London, England a new campaign will be launched taking the concept of prevention to its full extent by banning a weapon that is not yet in use. Fully autonomous weapons are very much on the drawing boards and in the plans of technologically advanced militaries such as China, Russia, the UK and the US. These weapons pose a wide range of ethical, moral, and legal issues. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots seeks to raise awareness of those issues and to encourage a pre-emptive ban on the weapons.

Over the past decade, the expanded use of unmanned armed vehicles or drones has dramatically changed warfare, bringing new humanitarian and legal challenges. Now rapid advances in technology are permitting the United States and other nations with high-tech militaries, including China, Israel, Russia, and the United Kingdom, to move toward systems that would give full combat autonomy to machines.

Lethal robot weapons which would be able to select and attack targets without any human intervention take warfare to dangerous and unacceptable levels. The new campaign launched today is a coordinated international coalition of non-governmental organizations concerned with the implications of fully autonomous weapons, also called “killer robots.”

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots calls for a pre-emptive and comprehensive ban on the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons. The prohibition should be achieved through an international treaty, as well as through national laws and other measures.

The term fully autonomous weapons may sound like something from a video game, but they are not. They are lethal weapons and once programmed will not be controlled by anyone. While some may find the idea of machines fighting machines with humans spared the death and destruction of combat appealing, the fact is that will not be the case. We are not talking here about futuristic cyborgs battling each other to death, but about robots designed to kill humans. Thus the name killer robots is simultaneously deadly accurate and highly disturbing.

We live in a world where technology is omnipresent, but we are also well aware of its limitations. While we enjoy the benefits of technology and appreciate those who create and operate them, we also well aware that airplanes sometimes crash, trains derail, ships run aground, cars get recalled, the internet occasionally blacks out (as do power grids), computers freeze, viruses spread via email messages or websites, and, people occasionally end up in the wrong place because of a malfunctioning or poorly programmed GPS device. To use the vernacular “shit happens” or in this case hi-tech shit happens. What could possibly go wrong with arming robots without any meaningful human control?

It would also be comforting to think that since these are very advanced weapons only the “good guys” would have them. However, events in the last two years in Libya, North Korea and Syria, to name a few, would indicate that desperate dictators and rogue states have no problems acquiring the most sophisticated and hi-tech weaponry. If they can get them so can terrorists and criminals.

Scientists and engineers have created some amazing robots which have the potential to greatly improve our lives, but no scientist or engineer should be involved in creating an armed robot that can operate without human control. Computer scientists and engineers have created fabulous devices which have increased our productivity and made life much more enjoyable for millions of people. Those computer experts should never create programs that would allow an armed machine to operate without any human in control.

The hundreds of thousands of landmine and cluster munition victims around the world are testament to the fact that what looks good on the drawing board or in the lab can have deadly consequences for innocent civilians; despite the best intentions or even the best technology that money can buy. We need to learn the key lesson of these two weapons that tragedies can and should be prevented.  The time to stop fully autonomous weapons does not begin next week, or next month, or during testing, or after their first use. The time to stop killer robots begins today April 23, 2013 in London, England and wherever you are reading this.