Part of Future of Warfare Initiative

Ethical Autonomy

Information technology is driving rapid increases in the autonomous capabilities of unmanned systems, from self-driving cars to factory robots, and increasingly autonomous unmanned systems will play a significant role in future conflicts as well. The prospect of increased autonomy in weapons systems raises challenging legal, moral, ethical, policy and strategic stability issues. Nation-states and activists in the United States and abroad are already debating how advances in autonomy will influence warfare – and what, if anything, should be done. Activists have launched a “Campaign to Stop Killer Robots,” comprised of 53 non-governmental organizations. In May of 2014, state parties to the United Nations’ Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons held initial discussions on autonomous weapons, and future discussions are likely.

Governments and militaries are only beginning to grapple with how to address the challenges and opportunities associated with increased autonomy. Technology is moving fast in this area. Few states have guidelines on how autonomy should be included in future weapons systems, with the United States a notable exception.

The project on Ethical Autonomy will examine the legal, moral, ethical, policy and strategic stability dimensions of increased autonomy in future weapon systems. The goal of CNAS’ Ethical Autonomy project is to help states, activists, academics and militaries grapple with the challenging issues of autonomy in future weapons. This dialogue is necessary to ensure an appropriate balance between ethical and strategic stability considerations, technological opportunities and future warfighting needs.

Future of Warfare Initiative Director and Senior Fellow Paul Scharre asked experts to examine the future of autonomous weapon systems. View their responses.


Bibliography on autonomous weapon systems:

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Research Team

  • Paul Scharre

    Senior Fellow and Director, Future of Warfare Initiative

  • Lauren Fish

    Research Associate, Defense Strategies and Assessments Program