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May 24, 2013

Demand Grows for Global Ban on 'Killer Robots'

by Henry Ridgwell

United Nations’ special rapporteur on executions has joined calls for a moratorium on so-called ‘killer robots’ - automated weapons systems which critics fear may one day operate independently from human commanders. It may sound like something from a sci-fi movie - but campaigners say the threat is real and the robots already exist.

A human-sized robot joined campaigners outside the British Parliament last month to highlight what they say are the imminent dangers of automated weapons systems - or "killer robots."

Among them was American Jody Williams, who won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for her role in the campaign to ban landmines.

There has to be discussion about technology that will totally transform war. And when my country wants to call it a bloodless battlefield I feel enraged," said Williams.

Unmanned combat air vehicles, or drones, have been a part of warfare for several years - and form a key part of the United States’ battle against militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The X-47B drone, currently undergoing flight testing, is one of the world’s most advanced, able to take off from an aircraft carrier. Many countries operate drone programs.

Noel Sharkey, a Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, and Chairman of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, says drones mark the final step in the industrial revolution of war.

“Now the big question is, ‘who is looking at the targets, who is deciding when to fire it?’ We’re only concerned with the kill function being autonomous. So we need proper human supervision to select the targets and engage them," said Sharkey.

Sharkey says currently all drones operate under human supervision.

But supporters argue that technology like drones can eliminate human fallacy from the battlefield.

Professor Christopher Coker of the London School of Economics is author of Warrior Geeks: How 21st Century Technology is Changing the Way We Fight and Think about War.

“One argument is they have greater oversight than anyone’s ever had before. They are actually watching the target for hours at a time sometimes, days at a time, so there’s a certain behavioral profile and on that basis they take the decision on whether to strike or not. But that gives you no greater insight into the character that you’re actually dealing with, and, of course, there is collateral damage as well," said Coker.

The soundtrack to a promotional video from South Korean industrial giant Samsung Techwin for its SGR-A1 sentry robot, which aims to replace border or security guards with intelligent surveillance cameras.

It is armed with a 5.5 mm machine gun - but still controlled by human operators. The campaign group Human Rights Watch says it fears the human element could one day easily be removed.

Again, Professor of Robotics Noel Sharkey.

“The thing about an autonomous robot is you couldn’t hold it accountable. It’s not a moral agent. So who do you hold accountable? Well the problem is that you’re probably going to talk about having the commander being accountable. But that really wouldn’t be fair because there are so many things that can go wrong within a robot," he said.

Campaigners say there is huge interest from industrial corporations in developing so-called killer robots.

The U.N.’s special rapporteur on executions has joined calls for a moratorium on their deployment.

The issue is due to be discussed at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on May 29th.