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A majority of New Zealanders say they oppose “killer robots”, or autonomous weapons, being used in conflict, making the country among the most concerned in the world.
As the Government considers its policy on autonomous weapons and pushes for international rules around their use, a survey commissioned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Mfat) shows there little knowledge of, but some concern about, so-called “killer robots” among the public.
New Zealand has long been an advocate for disarmament in international forums, after a protest movement in the 1980s led to the country declaring itself a nuclear-free zone. Autonomous weapons systems, which use artificial intelligence to target and kill people without any human decision-making, are seen as a new frontier in the arms race between major military powers.
Disarmament Minister Phil Twyford said that, compared to a similar Human Rights Watch survey of 28 countries, New Zealand placed third among countries for opposing the weapons.
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“Partly because of our anti-nuclear history, New Zealanders are quite plugged into this kind of thinking. They get it. It actually makes sense to regulate and agree rules on weapons of war to protect civilians and make the world safer,” he said.
The survey, run by polling company Colmar Brunton, posed a series of questions about autonomous weapons to 2000 New Zealanders.
The majority, 79 per cent, said they had not heard about autonomous weapons until they were surveyed.
Some 51 per cent said they “strongly” opposed the use of such weapons, 21 per cent they somewhat opposed, and 13 per cent said they somewhat supported use of the weapons.
A majority, 60 per cent, were concerned the weapons could technically fail, 53 per cent worried the weapons would “cross a moral line”, and 52 per cent said “they’d be unaccountable”.
“It is a relatively new issue on the public agenda. I thought it was interesting that so many people did actually know and had a moral position on it,” Twyford said.
He said more people would become aware that “swarms of drones using facial recognition software, completely cut off from human decision-making, could be let loose in the battlefield, or by terrorists against civilians – that is a pretty terrifying prospect”.
Twyford said he hoped New Zealand could play a “leading role” in pushing against autonomous weapons, and there was an “intensive” policy process happening between government agencies, including Mfat and the Ministry of Defence.
The Government should have a policy to take to a United Nations conference on the subject in November, he said.
“The ethical and moral position on killer robots is absolutely clear. And we have an abhorrence of the application of artificial intelligence (AI) to weapons of war, that takes humans out of the decision-making chain. That is our position.
“We want to see legally binding rules … And that should absolutely include a ban on fully autonomous, sometimes referred to as unpredictable autonomous, weapons.”
Human Rights Watch arms advocacy director Mary Wareham said New Zealand had been participating for almost a decade in international discussions about killer robots but it had not yet explained what it believed should be done.
“Words matter, actions count more. And New Zealand needs to articulate in depth what it would seek in an international treaty prohibiting killer robots, it also needs to put some muscle behind the political process of achieving that goal,” she said.
“And that is the missing component at the moment, which I hope will be delivered as part of this policy development process.”
She said autonomous weapons were an existential threat of global concern, akin to climate change and nuclear weapons.
More than 50 countries wanted international law, she said, however more than a dozen military powers were in opposition – including India, France, the United Kingdom, United States and Russia.
“There is a real urgency here to deal with this faster than it is being dealt with at the moment,” she said.