ICRAC statement on Overarching issues, 2015 CCW Expert Meeting

Posted on 16 April 2015 by Guglielmo Tamburrini

On Thursday April 16, ICRAC’s Dr. Guglielmo Tamburrini delivered the following statement to the informal meeting of experts at the United Nations in Geneva.

I wish to thank on behalf of ICRAC the Chair of the CCW expert meeting for setting up and coordinating such a rich and informative program of expert contributions on technical, ethical, legal, and operational issues about LAWS. ICRAC is equally grateful to panelists, state delegations, and civil society observers for their stimulating contributions to the analysis of these issues.

Many participants in the discussion have been calling for continued expert analyses and clarification of concepts that are crucially involved in the very idea of lethal autonomous weapons systems. At this point of CCW proceedings, however, it is equally important to take stock of converging views that have emerged from expert analyses and to reflect on their ethical and policy development implications.

In particular, ICRAC urges CCW delegations to focus on the far-reaching ethical implications of converging expert opinions on two crucial issues: the prospects of IHL compliance by LAWS and the potential threats that LAWS pose to global security.

Let me touch upon IHL compliance first. Distinguished experts in computer science, artificial intelligence, and robotics came to the shared conclusion that no autonomous weapon that one might develop on the basis of current or foreseeable scientific and technological advances can meet the moral demands for distinction, proportionality, and precaution at the level of an experienced human commander.

Special concerns to this effect emerged from theoretical and practical impediments preventing one to predict the behaviours of adaptive LAWS and the outcomes of their mutual interaction. But a host of other profound technological challenges were listed, such as those concerning the current perceptual and reasoning limitations of LAWS. Each one of these challenges has to be properly addressed and resolved before IHL compliant LAWS become technologically viable. Today no realistic estimate can be made as to whether – or when in the future – these various impediments will be overcome.

These shared expert opinions about IHL-compliance by LAWS furnish overwhelming moral support for the rapid development and implementation of transparent operational criteria ensuring firm human control on any weapon system whatsoever, and especially on those weapons that are or will be based on robotic and artificial intelligence technologies.

Let me now turn to consider concerns about LAWS which were advanced by distinguished experts in international affairs and strategic geopolitical studies.

LAWS are potentially more threatening to global security than many other conventional weapons. Swarms of LAWS that are capable of initiating coordinated attacks on great numbers of military objectives raise special concerns in connection with a new arms race and its expected impact on global destabilization – up to and including the nuclear domain. Global stability concerns about LAWS are independent of the question whether LAWS will ever be able to comply with IHL. Indeed, these concerns will persist no matter whether IHL-compliant LAWS will become available.

What are the ethical implications of global security concerns about LAWS? Deliberations about international rules of collective behaviour involve an ethical evaluation of their expected outcomes – of their aggregate benefits and costs. By permitting the development, production, and deployment of LAWS one might expect asymmetric battlefield advantages for some actors and possibly a reduction of risk levels for soldiers in the way of good and desirable consequences. However, these short-term and local benefits are largely outweighed by the arms race and global destabilization costs for humanity as a whole that are expected to flow from the propagation of LAWS. Therefore, an ethical evaluation of aggregate benefits and costs in a wide geopolitical context rather than in a narrow and temporally limited context provides strong support for banning the development, production and deployment of LAWS.

In conclusion, ICRAC urges the recognition of converging expert opinions on the prospects of IHL compliance by LAWS and the potential threats that these weapons pose to global security. Both kinds of converging expert opinions strengthen the ethical motivations that have been adduced for a firm human control on weapons systems and for a ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems.

Guglielmo Tamburrini

Guglielmo Tamburrini

Guglielmo Tamburrini

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