In an open letter published on 21 August, founders and CEOs of nearly 100 leading tech companies from 26 countries called on the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) to redouble its effort to prevent the threats posed by the development of autonomous weapon systems (AWS). Such weapons would select and engage targets without human intervention. The signatories fear AWS would endanger civilians and lead to an arms race.

Still from a promotional video by Dibotics, one of the companies whose leaders signed the letter (http://www.dibotics.com)

Two years ago, scientists and engineers in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robotics called for a ban on autonomousweapons. The letter, signed by over 3000 AI/Robotics researchers and over 17700 others to date, makes clear that “Just as most chemists and biologists have no interest in building chemical or biological weapons, most AI researchers have no interest in building AI weapons — and do not want others to tarnish their field by doing so.”

It is encouraging that those involved most directly in building and commercialising the technologies that may be repurposed to develop AWS feel they have a special responsibility to raise alarm. The military application of advances in science and technology always bears special risks. Participation of the scientific community as well as the general public in building a common understanding of the environmental, ethical, health, legal and security implications of novel technologies is important for anticipating emerging risks and formulating an adequate international response.

The CCW has held informal expert talks on AWS since 2014. Last December, states parties decided to convene a formal Group of Governmental Experts (GGE). However, due to funding shortfalls caused by a small number of states failing to pay their contributions, the GGE has not yet been convened. A session scheduled for August was cancelled, whilst a further meeting to run from 13 to 17 November remains to be confirmed. Whether within the CCW or elsewhere, multilateral action on AWS is urgently needed.

Article 36 is a member of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots that calls for a preventive prohibition of fully autonomous weapons.

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