With the rapid development and proliferation of robotic weapons, machines are starting to take the place of humans on the battlefield. Some military and robotics experts have predicted that “killer robots”—fully autonomous weapons that could select and engage targets without human intervention—could be developed within 20 to 30 years. At present, military officials generally say that humans will retain some level of supervision over decisions to use lethal force, but their statements often leave open the possibility that robots could one day have the ability to make such choices on their own power. Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) believe that such revolutionary weapons would not be consistent with international humanitarian law and would increase the risk of death or injury to civilians during armed conflict. A preemptive prohibition on their development and use is needed.
A relatively small community of specialists has hotly debated the benefits and dangers of fully autonomous weapons. Military personnel, scientists, ethicists, philosophers, and lawyers have contributed to the discussion. They have evaluated autonomous weapons from a range of perspectives, including military utility, cost, politics, and the ethics of delegating life-and-death decisions to a machine. According to Philip Alston, then UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, however, “the rapid growth of these technologies, especially those with lethal capacities and those with decreased levels of human control, raise serious concerns that have been almost entirely unexamined by human rights or humanitarian actors.”1 It is time for the broader public to consider the potential advantages and threats of fully autonomous weapons.
The primary concern of Human Rights Watch and IHRC is the impact fully autonomous weapons would have on the protection of civilians during times of war. This report analyzes whether the technology would comply with international humanitarian law and preserve other checks on the killing of civilians. It finds that fully autonomous weapons would not only be unable to meet legal standards but would also undermine essential non-legal safeguards for civilians. Our research and analysis strongly conclude that fully autonomous weapons should be banned and that governments should urgently pursue that end.