The United Nations vote against robots

Slaughterbots, screen
Slaughterbots, screen

With a dynamic development of modern technologies the necessity to update legal regulations grows rapidly. Even now, a year after launching chat GPT for global use, a lively discussion on the regulation of artificial intelligence continues. Among the topics discussed, the issue of autonomous weapons has once again emerged, particularly concerning in light of rapid advancements in the field of AI and the unsettling backdrop of armed conflicts arising worldwide.

In June 2023, the United Nations Security Council convened a first-ever session addressing the threats and challenges posed by artificial intelligence. Secretary-General António Guterres called upon member states to negotiate a legally binding instrument prohibiting the use of autonomous weapons by 2026.

For this and other reasons, during the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, the First Committee (tackling Disarmament and International Security issues) discussed resolution L.56 concerning autonomous weapons. Similar documents had been consistently rejected by the Committee over the last ten years. This time, the proposal was passed by a majority of votes.

Iron-hearted Terminator or merely an inconspicuous drone?

Lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) is an exhaustive term for autonomous weapons, also called killer robots or slaughterbots by some. They differ from conventional weapons in the ability to carry out attacks without human involvement. Although when discussing human-independent weapons many envision humanoid robot armies, what actually turns out to be far more dangerous are, for instance, combat drones programmed to seek out and destroy specific individuals or representatives of a particular target group.

Both the Charter of the United Nations and international humanitarian law prove to be insufficient legal instruments when faced with numerous ethical questions autonomous weapons raise. State-of-the-art solutions and exponentially emerging military technology developments pose a great challenge to international stability.

The first-ever UN resolution on autonomous weapons

The document authors emphasize the need to adopt new international agreements and regulations regarding autonomous weapons. The resolution itself does not contain meaningful details, though. It serves rather as a basis for future discussions and actions. The Secretary-General is obliged to compile a report providing data on the member- and observer states’ stances and policies towards LAWS. Local and scientific communities voices of both international and regional level shall be allowed to take the floor as well. Moreover, the agenda on LAWS-related topics is to be included in the General Assembly programme for the 79th session in 2024, what gives hope for the renewed debate to be continued.

The first step taken, but a marathon ahead

The resolution has no legal force to directly influence any political decisions. The votes cast on November 1, 2023, serve therefore merely as a barometer to asses various countries’ attitudes toward proposals to limit (or ban) the use of autonomous weapons. 164 countries voted in favor of the resolution, 8 abstained and 5 were against it, including Russia, Belarus, and India. The Russian side faulted the resolution proponents inter alia for focusing excessively on the threats following the use of LAWS, while distinctly disregarding the potential benefits, for instance when countering terrorism.

What hinders reaching a consensus is also the lack of a transparency in terms of definition for this weaponry. Legislation in some countries distinguishes autonomous systems from those fully autonomous, leaving a noteworthy loophole and room for manipulation. Furthermore, other countries consider the system’s adaptation and AI-based learning abilities a decisive criterion, rather than the extent the weapon is kept under human control.

The way autonomous weapons are perceived is yet key not only on the political but also the societal level. Killer robots are nowadays no longer just a science fiction concept but they indeed menace global security and political stability palpably. The nub of the matter is well depicted in a short film Slaughterbots created by The Future of Life Institute.

Worthy of attention are also actions undertook by the Stop Killer Robots campaign. Started in 2012, the coalition currently brings together more than 250 social organizations from over 70 countries to combat the digital dehumanization process. Members of the international Stop Killer Robots movement emphasize the need for enacting new international law on autonomous weapons. The project’s mission is to uphold human rights and security by ensuring human control over technological advancements.

The Civil Affairs Institute has joined the Stop Killer Robots coalition as the first and thus far only organization in Poland. The fight for technology to empower people instead of reducing human beings to patterns of 1’s and 0’s and being allowed to take life-or-death decisions is extremely important in the Information (and AI) Age.

Berenika Serwatka

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