Defence considers drones, while UN wants moratorium on lethal robots

United Nations report argues that robots should not have the power of life and death over humans

The Department of Defence’s new White Paper is exploring the introduction of defence drones for Australia, but a recent United Nations report could put the kibosh on killer robots.

The UN Special Rapporteur (PDF), authored by South African professor of human rights law Christof Heyns, argues that lethal autonomous robotics (LARs) which, once switched on select targets without human intervention, could raise far-reaching concerns about the protection of life during war.

“This includes the question of the extent to which they can be programmed to comply with the requirements of international humanitarian law and the standards protecting life under international human rights law,” read the report.

According to Heyns, the deployment of LARs may be unacceptable because robots should “not have the power” of life and death over humans.

“If used, LARS could have far-reaching effects on societal values, including fundamentally on the value of life and international stability,” the report said.

“While it is not clear at present how LARs could be capable of satisfying international humanitarian law and international human rights law requirements in many respects, it is foreseeable that they could comply under certain circumstances, especially if used alongside human soldiers.”

The Rapporteur recommends that countries establish a national moratoria on aspects of LARs and the establishment of a panel to explore the legal, ethical and policy issues on LARs.

According to Heyns, the panel should consist of experts from fields such as law, robotics, computer science, military operations, conflict management, ethics and philosophy.

He also called on the developers of robotic systems to establish a code of conduct, defining responsible behaviour for LARs in accordance with international human rights law.

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The Department of Defence White Paper has recommended an investigation of drones because of the technology’s stealth and ability to loiter for extended periods.

“The systems have advantages for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, including in support of Australia’s border security needs,” read the paper.

According to Defence, semi-autonomous unmanned systems that are able to engage in self-protection and offensive operations are under development overseas and may be deployed by defence forces in the mid-2020s.

“Domestic, international legal and policy considerations will be important factors associated with their employment. We will need to understand the increasing opportunities and risks arising from the use of greater autonomy in electronic attack, including in the early stages of strike operations,” read the report.

Follow Hamish Barwick on Twitter: @HamishBarwick

Follow Techworld Australia on Twitter: @Techworld_AU

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