Killing by machine: Key issues for understanding meaningful human control
Understanding human control over weapons
In current practice, there is an expectation that human control is exercised over the use of weapons. This means when, where and how weapons are used; what or whom they are used against; and the effects of their use. Increasingly autonomous weapon systems threaten to erode what we have come to expect in terms of human control over weapons. Weapon systems that operate outside of the parameters of meaningful human control are neither ethically acceptable nor legally permissible.
Article 36 argues that meaningful human control over weapon systems is required in every individual attack. States should develop new international law to make this requirement explicit. Understanding how we exercise control over existing weapons provides critical guidance for developing an adequate response to increasing autonomy in weapon systems.
In the case of weapon systems that can detect and attack target objects without direct human intervention, critical aspects of human control broadly relate to:
× The pre-programmed target parameters, the weapon’s sensor-mechanism and the algorithms used to match sensor-input to target parameters.
× The geographic area within which and the time during which the weapon system operates independently of human control.
Recommendations to states
Human control over the use of weapons and their effects is essential to ensuring that the use of a weapon is moral justifiable and legal. Such control is also required for accountability over the consequences of the use of force.
To demonstrate that such control can be exercised, states must show that they
• understand the process by which a system identifies individual target objects, and
• understand the context in space and time where an attack can take place.
Given the development of greater autonomy in weapon systems,
• States should make it explicit that meaningful human control is required over individual attacks.
• Weapon systems that operate without meaningful human control should be prohibited.
• States should explain how control is applied over existing weapon systems, especially those with autonomous or automatic functions, and why they consider such systems to be acceptable and permissible
Read more in a new publication by Article 36 (April 2015):