Call for consensus on automated weapons

5th December 2018

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Autonomous weapons could lead to barbaric human rights violations unless international legal consensus is reached.

So said Wadham alumnus and Professor of Computer Science at the University of California, Berkeley, Stuart Russell speaking at Wadham’s Human Rights Forum, hosted by Ken Macdonald QC.

“If we move ahead with autonomous weapons, we will have created another category of weapons of mass destruction…., cheaper and much more dangerous than any class of weapon of mass destruction we have ever had,” said Russell (Physics, 1979).

The need to control the proliferation and use of small, ‘quad-copter type’ technology, is what Russell is most concerned to discuss. In a recent short film Slaughterbots, the computer science professor highlights the horrifying damage that can be caused by these low-cost, intelligent weapons. The film has been viewed an estimated 70 million times.

Although supranational organisations like the EU and UN are engaged in ongoing discussions about treaties and agreements on these weapons, progress has been slow, principally due to a lack of understanding.

“At the moment the political situation is very confused. Not many nations understand what they are talking about when it comes to autonomous weapons,” added Russell.

Without consensus from the international community as to the definition of ‘autonomous weapons,’ the state and company cooperation necessary to prevent human rights violations will be difficult, he added.

“Russia is a great example,” he adds, “They are saying that these things will be a problem, but not yet – 30-40 years in the future. But at the same time they are selling them….in the form of an autonomous ground vehicle with machine guns.”

So how does Russell define an autonomous weapon? Driverless cars and chess programmes exemplify the level of strategic decision-making power and action available to an autonomous machine. Importantly, for Russell: “autonomy decouples the number of weapons that can be deployed from the number of people required to deploy them.” This, he points out, leads directly to the WMD capabilities of autonomous weapons and is, in the long run, more problematic than potential violations of International Humanitarian Law such as failure to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants.

Following this event, Professor Stuart Russell became an Honorary Fellow of Wadham College at a short ceremony.

Wadham Human Rights Forum is a continuing series of lectures, seminars and discussions hosted by the Wadham College Law Society and open to all.

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