Scores of countries are gathering at the United Nations this week to discuss lethal autonomous weapon systems – essentially, robots that would pick their own targets. This marks their fourth year of debate with little to show for it; the group does not even have a shared working definition of “autonomous weapon.” Meanwhile, the technology of autonomy and artificial intelligence is racing forward.
When the countries last met, in April 2016, DeepMind’s AlphaGohad just beaten world champion Go player Lee Sedol in a head-to-head match — an unprecedented feat for a computer. But just a few weeks ago, DeepMind published a paper on its new AlphaGo Zero, which taught itself the game without human-supplied training data and, after a mere three days of self-play, defeated the older program in 100 straight games. Between those two events, the world’s countries held no substantive meetings on autonomous weapons — excepting only last year’s decision to bump the discussions up one rank in the diplomatic hierarchy.
A consortium of over 60 non-governmental organizations has called for an urgent ban on the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons, seeking to halt such work before it begins in earnest. Yet at this stage a legally binding treaty is almost inconceivable. The UN forum that the nations are using, the awkwardly named Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, operates by consensus — meaning that although 19 nations have said they would back a ban, any one of the other 105 can veto it. Even advocates of a ban agree that the diplomatic process is “faltering financially, losing focus [and] lacks a goal.”
Read the full op-ed in Defense One.