November 13, 2014

Press Note: Autonomous Weapons and the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons

By Michael Horowitz, and Paul Scharre

Washington, November 13 – In response to a meeting coming up over the next few days in the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons regarding lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS), Michael C. Horowitz, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, along with Paul Scharre, Fellow and Director of the 20YY Warfare Initiative at CNAS, have written a new press note explaining the situation: 

Today and tomorrow, delegates to the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) will discuss the issue of autonomous weapons, or "killer robots." Unlike drones today, which have a person firmly in control of the use of force, autonomous weapons are potential future weapons that would decide which targets to strike all on their own, without a human approving each target. The CCW held a week of discussion on autonomous weapons in May of 2014. Up for discussion this week will be whether to continue those discussions for another round at the CCW meetings next year.

As we describe in our briefing, “Autonomous Weapons Systems at the United Nations,” rapid advances in computer technology have raised the prospect for the future development of autonomous weapons systems, though LAWS generally do not exist at present. LAWS raise several important issues that states should continue discussing in the context of the CCW.

One important question for the CCW to address is what an autonomous weapons system actually is. A recent New York Times article highlighted concern from NGOs regarding the U.S. Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, which the U.S. Department of Defense actually classifies as a semi-autonomous weapons system similar to existing precision-guided weapons. Coming to a common understanding on the definition of LAWS could help clarify what actually is at stake in these discussions. 

Other important issues include:

  • How states should think about meaningful human control over the use of force, and how it may depend on the particular context in which force is used (air, ground, sea, space, etc.)
  • The incentives and drawbacks that may motivate states to think about developing autonomous weapons – or decide against their development
  • The technological range of the possible for these systems – what is science fiction and what could become reality in the next generation?

 The authors of this press note are available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at nurwitz@cnas.org, or call 202-457-9409.

  • Michael Horowitz

    Adjunct Senior Fellow, Technology and National Security Program

    Michael C. Horowitz is an associate professor of political science and the associate director of Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also an adjunct sen...

  • Paul Scharre

    Senior Fellow and Director, Technology and National Security Program

    Paul Scharre is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. From 2008-2013, Mr. Scharre worked in t...