Biden administration won’t back ban on ‘killer robots’ used in war

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The United States is signalling that it will not support a legally-binding ban on the development of unmanned war machines that operate autonomously, colloquially dubbed “killer war robots”.

The devices, which have reportedly already seen use in some combat zones, can be used to engage with enemy combatants and even track or kill a human target without any operator supervision.

Development of such technology has long been a concern of AI ethics experts, who warn that the devices provide new opportunities for abuse and misuse. Some major companies including Tesla have vowed not to participate in the development of related tech.

Last week, an official with the State Department told representatives of nations supporting the ban that the US would instead push for a “non-binding code of conduct” for the use and development of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS).

“In our view, the best way to make progress … would be through the development of a non-binding code of conduct,” Josh Dorosin told dignitaries ahead of the UN-led conference set to review the Convention of Certain Conventional Weapons, according to multiple news outlets.

The stance was derided by supporters of the efforts to impose ethical restrictions on the use of artificial intelligence, including John Tasioulas, an Oxford professor and director of the Institute for Ethics in AI, who tweeted that the Biden administration’s stance was “sad and unsurprising”.

‘The US has rejected calls for a binding agreement regulating or banning the use of “killer robots”, instead proposing a “code of conduct” at the United Nations.’

Sad but unsurprising. https://t.co/4bVBuA457H

— John Tasioulas (@JTasioulas) December 3, 2021

The Independent has reached out to the US State Department for clarification on the US’s stance on the weapons, and to inquire why the Biden administration would not support a legally-binding document. Indian officials also reportedly opposed the idea at the meeting earlier this month, while dozens of countries such as New Zealand and the UN secretary-general have endorsed the call for a ban.

“States have a historic opportunity to ensure meaningful human control over the use of force and prevent a world in which machines make life and death decisions,” a spokesperson for the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots told The Guardian.

LAWS are considered distinct from drones, which are unmanned aerial units controlled remotely by a human operator, the key factor that distinguishes the two technologies. The Biden administration has greatly reduced the scope of US drone warfare after it was used widely under the Obama and Trump administrations throughout the War on Terror.

The use of drone technology came under harsh scrutiny once again over the summer after a US strike on a vehicle originally said to be full of Isis-K militants was instead revealed to have killed numerous civilians, including multiple young children, and may not have struck any militants at all.

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John Bowden