The Start of Something Good

By Tara Osler

There are countless issues facing youth worldwide today. We are on the forefront of several causes – climate change, gun violence, women’s rights, racial equality, freedom of expression, and economic issues all have made headlines recently as young people took to the streets in droves as advocates for their futures. My generation has the ability to plan and instigate mass demonstrations (due to our access to internet communication networks globally), and we have put our resources to good use. Even during the pandemic, youth demonstrations have continued in several countries, both in-person and over social media. Our access to communications technology and higher education is a privilege no previous generation has benefited from, and now more than ever young people are using it to organize and make their voices heard.

However, being the most technologically-advanced generation is a double-edged sword. Our personal data is permanently available on the internet. For many of us, this started in childhood, long before there were any legal regulations restricting the use of data on the internet. Today, our virtual vulnerability is beginning to inform the issues most important to youth. There is still a relative lack of legal protections that could keep our personal data safe, meaning we are at risk of all manner of technological threats. This year, activists in several countries were tracked using social media data and facial recognition software after attending protests. It is a very dystopian reality: our faces do not belong to us, and can be used against us at any time. I still remember going to Fridays for the Future marches in 2019 – not carrying identification or money, wearing a hat and large sunglasses. As a white woman living in Vancouver, Canada, I am certainly not at the same level of risk as my fellow protestors in the United States or Hong Kong – but the looming of threat of data still hangs over me. I (along with all other young activists) live with the reality that I cannot be anonymous – a fact that makes many of us hesitant to speak freely about causes that matter to us. This vulnerability has also become uncomfortably apparent in light of recent developments in weapons manufacturing.

The production of fully autonomous weapons systems (or “killer robots”) is fundamentally an issue of human rights in a digital age. The potential hazards of these systems are beyond comprehension – and beyond the scope of international law. For my generation, who have lived our entire lives with the internet, this is a serious issue, the severity of which we are only beginning to grasp.

In December of 2020, youth activists from 20 countries gathered for a virtual conference, to share their individual concerns regarding the development of killer robots. As the youth representative for Canada, I logged on to my laptop at 2:00am to join the panel, which encompassed 10 different time zones (mine being the biggest time difference). Though we suffered, at times, through internet connectivity issues and the general inferno that is the Zoom webinar platform, we persevered. I believe we all understood it was the only way – though the impact of a virtual conference may be lesser than that of a physical event, we felt a certain sense of duty to at least try.

Several risks were raised – the representative from Argentina shared her fear that Indigenous communities would be oppressed further by governments and private corporations armed with killer robots. The representative from Vietnam expressed concern over the perilous situation facing his country in the South China Sea, and the danger they would face should other militaries in the region implement these weapons. Another concern, raised by the representative from the United States, was focused on the financial cost of producing the weapons in his country, where rates of unemployment and poverty are climbing. Several of the concerns raised by my fellow speakers reflect other issues that matter to our generation: the rights of minority communities (who will be at great risk if their oppressor gains access to these weapons), freedom of expression (concerns have been raised over the safety of activists should their governments implement killer robots).

One of the concerns raised was the central point in my own speech: the issue of technological advancement and legality. Currently, international law does not have any precedent that could address the legality of killer robots. Technological development worldwide continues to be somewhat of a legal “no man’s land”, in that much of it has occurred without any restrictions to limit its scope. For killer robots, this means there is nothing regulating their development or implementation as of yet. Combined with the lack of legal regulations over the use of personal data, the risk becomes clearer. Killer robots will mostly require artificial intelligence to function, and artificial intelligence requires data to “think”. For those of us whose personal data has been available on the internet since we were children, this is a massive risk to our safety and freedom.

The most common thread among the speeches from my fellow activists was the act of calling upon our governments to take the threat of killer robots seriously. We feel that, like many issues youth are facing today, it is pushed aside in favour of more immediate concerns. Like climate change, the dangers of killer robots seem far-off to many people – they will happen someday, but that day is part of a distant, imagined future that does not concern them. For my generation, that future does not feel so distant. If killer robots are implemented as far in the future as 2040, I’ll be forty-one years old – young enough to be middle-aged, and spend the last half of my life in a world with autonomous weapons. Like climate change, the existence of killer robots is closer than we think, and young people like me know that it will affect us.

Attending the youth conference gave me a strange sense of optimism. For many of us, 2020 was a difficult year. I felt the weight of it on my shoulders as I sat in my desk chair in the middle of night to sign into Zoom, knowing that had things been different I might have been able to travel and see my fellow speakers in person. Yet somehow, I felt lighter when I finally closed my laptop screen at 6:00am. I think it was the lightness that comes from being among likeminded people – from not being alone. I was in a (virtual) room full of people my age who know about an issue that I am passionate about, and who are just as passionate as I am. The lack of human connection that comes with virtual events was a barrier, but I think we broke through it. To me, the youth conference felt like the start of something – I don’t know exactly what, but I like to think it will be good.

Tara Osler was Mines Action Canada’s Summer 2020 Research and Communications Assistant and is currently studying at the University of British Columbia.