IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

'Terminator' on hold? Debate to stop killer robots takes global stage

130418-N-LN833-417 PACIFIC OCEAN (April 18, 2013) The MK 15 Phalanx close-in weapon system (CIWS) on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl ...
The MK 15 Phalanx close-in weapon system (CIWS) — which canJacob G. Kaucher / U.S. Navy

A proposal to pause the development of "killer robot" technology is seeing a surge of interest from robotics researchers as well as the representatives of key nations at the United Nations this month. 

At a UN General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International Security side event Monday, mission delegates from Egypt, France, and Switzerland voiced an interest in regulating "killer robots" — completely autonomous weapon systems — in warfare. They are some of the first international voices backing ideas that the Human Rights Watch and Campaign to Stop Killer Robots have been championing for about a year

But before deliberations about regulating killer robots can take place, experts say they want more transparency from governments already using semi-autonomous systems, like the Phalanx naval weapon system, that to a degree can fire on their own, without a human "pulling the trigger." 

"We are not luddites, we are not trying to stop the advance of robotics," Jody Williams, 1997 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and one of the panelists at Monday's UN event, said. But, "I don't want to see robots operating on their own, armed with lethal weapons."

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots launched in April this year, and calls for a ban on weapon systems that can make target and kill decisions without a human "in the loop." The launch followed a detailed report published by the HRW on the dangers of future "killer robot" technologies. Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur, presented a report on lethal autonomous weapons at the UN Human Rights Council in June this year. In it, he called for a ban on "certain aspects" of killer robots, and encouraged policy discussion about how to regulate them, at a national and international level. 

And one future forum for discussion has been proposed. Anais Laigle, First Secretary and representative from the France Permanent Mission to the UN, said Monday that killer bots will be "included in the agenda" at the Convention on Conventional Weapons in November this year, a meeting chaired by France. 

At Monday's event, delegates from Egypt and Switzerland also indicated an interest in talking discussing the development and regulation of lethal autonomous weapons technologies. 

In a statement released earlier this month, Pakistan UN representatives said that the development of drones and killer robots "need to be checked and brought under international regulation," and Egypt agreed that regulations are needed before killer robots "are to be developed and/or deployed." Austria and France have mentioned an interest in regulating killer robots, and Algeria, Brazil, Germany, Morocco and the United States have raised their hands as well

It's not just policy makers. As of last week, more than 270 researchers signed a statement backing a ban on developing or using weapons that fire without human decision. 

Some scholars, like Matthew Waxman at Columbia Law School and Kenneth Anderson at American University are opposed to that statement, arguing that a treaty ban is "unnecessary and dangerous." Autonomous systems are in our future, and if governments don't use them — perhaps in a regulated way — they'll fall to use by rebel groups and non-government actors. Also, sophisticated weapons systems could one day be better than humans at locating targets, they say. 

But as a starting point for discussion, more information would help, Richard Moyes, a managing partner at non-profit organization Article 36, said at the panel on Monday. He wants governments to share information about how existing semi-autonomous weapons and operations work. So, rather than considering hypothetical "Terminator" scenarios, the data "will help us have a more concrete debate going forward," he said at the panel on Monday.

But secrecy has been a hallmark of the drones program in the US, where the capabilities and operations, and laws and policies governing the use of those systems are kept under wraps. "One of the biggest concerns" for Sarah Knuckey, professor of human rights law at NYU, who advised the Special Rapporteur Heynes, is that the secrecy will continue. 

"If the US carries on this very non-transparent track," she told NBC News, "We're not going to know what laws are going to be programmed [into the robots], and where they're going to be used." 

More transparency is exactly what Williams and the team from the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots wants, too. "I don't like my tax dollars being used on weapons that are not even discussed in the public domain," she said on Monday. "We have every right and every responsibility to have a public discussion as to where war is going." 

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about technology and science. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Google+