April 15, 2015

Keeping Killer Robots on a Tight Leash

By Michael Horowitz and Paul Scharre

This week, delegates to the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons will discuss autonomous weapon systems, or what activists call “killer robots.” Colorful language aside, the incorporation of increasing autonomy into weapons raises important legal, policy, and ethical issues. These include potential motivations for developing autonomous weapons, how they might proliferate, implications for crisis stability, and what their possible development means for the military profession.

No government has publicly stated that it is building autonomous weapons, but there are several reasons why they might start. The need for speed has already led at least 30 countries to deploy defensive systems with human-supervised autonomous modes, such as Aegis and Patriot, to protect ships, bases, and civilian populations from swift swarms of aircraft and missiles. Such systems are only likely to become more important as precision-guided missiles proliferate. Autonomous weapons could also be useful in situations where radio links work badly or not at all. In a conflict, militaries will seek to jam or disrupt each other’s communications. Moreover, some environments, such as undersea, are intrinsically challenging for communications. Finally, some governments could desire autonomous weapons, in part, simply because they believe potential adversaries might obtain them.

Read the full op-ed at Defnse One.

View All Reports View All Articles & Multimedia