November 27, 2012      

DEFENSE WEB?Human Rights Watch has called on governments to preemptively ban fully autonomous weapons (sometimes called “killer robots”) because of their danger to civilians in armed conflict, as they would be able to target people without human intervention.

In a 50-page report released yesterday, entitled “Losing Humanity: The Case Against Killer Robots,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) outlines concerns about fully autonomous weapons, “which would inherently lack human qualities that provide legal and non-legal checks on the killing of civilians.”

“In addition, the obstacles to holding anyone accountable for harm caused by the weapons would weaken the law’s power to deter future violations,” HRW said.

“Giving machines the power to decide who lives and dies on the battlefield would take technology too far,” said Steve Goose, arms division director at Human Rights Watch. “Human control of robotic warfare is essential to minimizing civilian deaths and injuries.”

The “Losing Humanity” report is jointly published by Human Rights Watch and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic. The two entities called for an international treaty that would “absolutely prohibit the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons.” They also called on nations to pass laws and adopt policies as important measures to prevent development, production, and use of such weapons at the domestic level.

However, HRW conceded that fully autonomous weapons do not yet exist, and major powers, including the U.S., have not made a decision to deploy them. “But high-tech militaries are developing or have already deployed precursors that illustrate the push toward greater autonomy for machines on the battlefield,” HRW said.

The U.S. is a leader in this technological development, producing a wide variety of unmanned vehicles for air, underwater and ground applications. Most of these vehicles are controlled by human operators who decide who or what is targeted. Drone operations over Afghanistan and Yemen are some of the best examples of military robot operations but aircraft like the X-47B are able to conduct the majority of their flight profile without human intervention.

Some of the more autonomous robotic systems include the Phalanx gun system, which automatically destroys incoming projectiles.

Several other countries — including China, Germany, Israel, South Korea, Russia, and the U.K. — are also heavily investing in military robotics.

Many experts predict that full autonomy for weapons could be achieved in 20 to 30 years, and some, think even sooner, HRW said.

Ten years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq have put a spotlight on the growing use of unmanned systems in the skies over the battlefield, from the high-flying Global Hawk to the lethal Predator aircraft and the hand-launched Raven.

But on the ground, thousands of small, remotely operated robots also have proven their value in dealing with roadside bombs, a lethal threat to U.S. troops in both wars. Of more than 6 000 robots deployed, about 750 have been destroyed in action, saving at least that many human lives, the Pentagon’s Robotics Systems Joint Program Office estimates. However, creating fully autonomous ground robots is a challenge for engineers and is still years away.

Companies and Markets recently estimated that the military ground robot market alone was worth $3.4 billion last year and will be worth $12.3 billion by 2018.

The factors driving the demand for military robotics include the desire to reduce or prevent military casualties; the need for new reconnaissance, combat and other machines to deal with changing tactics (such as bomb disposal robots); the need to reduce military spending; and developments in the fields of military science, computing and sensor technology that is creating more advanced robots.

Between 50 and 80 countries already use defence robots or are busy building or acquiring the technology.