21 Oct 2019
Experts representing a diversity of views on autonomous weapons systems collaborate on a realistic policy roadmap
By Ronald Arkin, Leslie Kaelbling, Stuart Russell, Dorsa Sadigh, Paul Scharre, Bart Selman and Toby Walsh
Editor’s Note: The debate on autonomous weapons systems has been escalating over the past several years as the underlying technologies evolve to the point where their deployment in a military context seems inevitable. IEEE Spectrum has published a variety of perspectives on this issue. In summary, while there is a compelling argument to be made that autonomous weapons are inherently unethical and should be banned, there is also a compelling argument to be made that autonomous weapons could potentially make conflicts less harmful, especially to non-combatants. Despite an increasing amount of international attention (including from the United Nations), progress towards consensus, much less regulatory action, has been slow. The following workshop paper on autonomous weapons systems policy is remarkable because it was authored by a group of experts with very different (and in some cases divergent) views on the issue. Even so, they were able to reach consensus on a roadmap that all agreed was worth considering. It’s collaborations like this that could be the best way to establish a reasonable path forward on such a contentious issue, and with the permission of the authors, we’re excited to be able to share this paper (originally posted on Georgia Tech’s Mobile Robot Lab website) with you in its entirety.
Autonomous Weapon Systems: A Roadmapping Exercise
Over the past several years, there has been growing awareness and discussion surrounding the possibility of future lethal autonomous weapon systems that could fundamentally alter humanity’s relationship with violence in war. Lethal autonomous weapons present a host of legal, ethical, moral, and strategic challenges. At the same time, artificial intelligence (AI) technology could be used in ways that improve compliance with the laws of war and reduce non-combatant harm. Since 2014, states have come together annually at the United Nations to discuss lethal autonomous weapons systems1. Additionally, a growing number of individuals and non-governmental organizations have become active in discussions surrounding autonomous weapons, contributing to a rapidly expanding intellectual field working to better understand these issues. While a wide range of regulatory options have been proposed for dealing with the challenge of lethal autonomous weapons, ranging from a preemptive, legally binding international treaty to reinforcing compliance with existing laws of war, there is as yet no international consensus on a way forward.
The lack of an international policy consensus, whether codified in a formal document or otherwise, poses real risks. States could fall victim to a security dilemma in which they deploy untested or unsafe weapons that pose risks to civilians or international stability. Widespread proliferation could enable illicit uses by terrorists, criminals, or rogue states. Alternatively, a lack of guidance on which uses of autonomy are acceptable could stifle valuable research that could reduce the risk of non-combatant harm.
International debate thus far has predominantly centered around whether or not states should adopt a preemptive, legally-binding treaty that would ban lethal autonomous weapons before they can be built. Some of the authors of this document have called for such a treaty and would heartily support it, if states were to adopt it. Other authors of this document have argued an overly expansive treaty would foreclose the possibility of using AI to mitigate civilian harm. Options for international action are not binary, however, and there are a range of policy options that states should consider between adopting a comprehensive treaty or doing nothing.
The purpose of this paper is to explore the possibility of a middle road. If a roadmap could garner sufficient stakeholder support to have significant beneficial impact, then what elements could it contain? The exercise whose results are presented below was not to identify recommendations that the authors each prefer individually (the authors hold a broad spectrum of views), but instead to identify those components of a roadmap that the authors are all willing to entertain2. We, the authors, invite policymakers to consider these components as they weigh possible actions to address concerns surrounding autonomous weapons3.
Summary of Issues Surrounding Autonomous Weapons
There are a variety of issues that autonomous weapons raise, which might lend themselves to different approaches. A non-exhaustive list of issues includes:
- The potential for beneficial uses of AI and autonomy that could improve precision and reliability in the use of force and reduce non-combatant harm.
- Uncertainty about the path of future technology and the likelihood of autonomous weapons being used in compliance with the laws of war, or international humanitarian law (IHL), in different settings and on various timelines.
- A desire for some degree of human involvement in the use of force. This has been expressed repeatedly in UN discussions on lethal autonomous weapon systems in different ways.
- Particular risks surrounding lethal autonomous weapons specifically targeting personnel as opposed to vehicles or materiel.
- Risks regarding international stability.
- Risk of proliferation to terrorists, criminals, or rogue states.
- Risk that autonomous systems that have been verified to be acceptable can be made unacceptable through software changes.
- The potential for autonomous weapons to be used as scalable weapons enabling a small number of individuals to inflict very large-scale casualties at low cost, either intentionally or accidentally.