TORONTO – A group of Nobel Peace Prize laureates are adding their names to a growing international effort to ban “fully autonomous weapons” or killer robots.
Signatories, which include activist Jody Williams, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former South African President F.W. de Klerk, warn robotic machines are “already taking the place of soldiers on the battlefield,” and are concerned that “leaving the killing to machines might make going to war easier and shift the burden of armed conflict onto civilians.”
The Nobel laureates have released their statement to coincide with the first-ever multilateral talks on killer robots, taking place May 13 to May 16 at the United Nations.
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A killer robot is defined as a fully autonomous weapon that can select and kill targets without human intervention.
The debate is taking place as part of the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, that has in the past denounced the use of heinous methods of warfare including landmines, laser weapons, and fragment bombs.
Professors Ronald Arkin and Noel Sharkey will be the primary speakers of the debate, both with opposing views on the future role of robots on the battlefield.
Arkin, a roboticist from the Georgia Institute of Technology, has studied the ethics of robots for the U.S. Department of Defense and doesn’t support the ban on unmanned machines.
Sharkey, a professor at the University of Sheffield in the U.K., has studied artificial intelligence and co-founded the Campaign Against Killer Robots.
In an interview with the BBC, Sharkey said autonomous weapons can’t be guaranteed to comply with international law.
“Nations aren’t talking to each other about this, which poses a big risk to humanity,” said Sharkey.
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Mines Action Canada (MAC) has joined the international chorus calling for a ban killer robots and in April the head of MAC spoke to parliament calling for the federal government to support the ban.
“It was not that long ago that the world considered the landmine to be the perfect soldier. It is now banned because of the humanitarian harm it has created,” Hannon said in April on Parliament Hill. “Canada led the movement to ban that weapon; it is one of the most successful international treaties of our era.”
Other groups like Human Rights Watch have also condemned the use of autonomous weapons.
Examples of countries currently using autonomous weapons systems include the U.S. Navy’s Phalanx gun system that automatically engages incoming threats and the Israeli “Guardium” an unmanned vehicle used to guard areas and attack trespassers using lethal force.
Drones are not scheduled to be debated as they are not yet completely autonomous and rely on remote pilot.
*With files from The Canadian Press