November 25, 2014

UNIDIR White Paper on Meaningful Human Control

By Matthew Seeley

The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) recently published a second report centered around the weaponization of increasingly autonomous technologies.  An important contribution to the understanding of autonomy in weapons, this report focuses on the objective of maintaining “meaningful human control” over weapons that incorporate increasing autonomy.  The report analyzes the concept of meaningful human control and the positives and negatives associated with embracing this principle in an attempt to advance the discussion on autonomous weapons.

The concept of meaningful human control evolved out of repeated calls regarding the importance of human control in autonomous weapons.  Even though the concept is still in nascent form, many countries and experts in the field have already welcomed the objective of meaningful human control as a valuable concept.  As a result, the concept has been frequently mentioned over the last year at multiple meetings of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons on lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS).

UNIDIR determines that meaningful human control provides “an approach to the discussion regarding the weaponization of increasingly autonomous technologies, but not a solution to the technical, legal, moral, and regulatory questions that they pose.”  The report calls for deeper discussions on topics including parameters that shape human control over current weapons systems, human-machine interaction, responsibility, and accountability in order to better articulate the concept of meaningful human control. 

The report also analyzes alternative approaches to the weaponization of increasingly autonomous technologies, including what UNIDIR determines to be positive and negative attributes of these approaches.  These approaches include the predictability of compliance with international humanitarian law (notably distinction, proportionality, and precautions in attack), and ensuring any use of lethal force is consistent with human intent. 

Ultimately, UNIDIR concludes that both predictability and human intent are captured in the broader concept of meaningful human control, and that this common ground serves as a welcome entry point for discussing the issues around the weaponization of increasingly autonomous technologies.  UNIDIR also emphasizes the importance of social and political processes in addition to the frequently discussed technical and legal aspects of the debate on autonomous weapons.      

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