Critics are urging Canada to lead a ban on autonomous weapons that signal a profound change in warfare.
Canada is being urged to lead a new international effort to ban so-called “killer robots” — the new generation of deadly high-tech equipment that can select and fire on targets without human help.
The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is pushing for a new international treaty to ban such weapons from the battlefields of the future.
Paul Hannon, head of Mines Action Canada, said the development of such autonomous weapons — primitive versions of Hollywood’s Terminator — signals a profound change in the very nature of warfare.
Hannon’s organization is one of nine international groups calling on Canada to take the lead in the banning of the weapons, as it did in the campaign against landmines in the 1990s.
“It was not that long ago that the world considered the landmine to be the perfect soldier. It is now banned because of the humanitarian harm it has created,” Hannon said Tuesday on Parliament Hill.
“Canada led the movement to ban that weapon; it is one of the most successful international treaties of our era.”
It would be far better to squelch the development of the weapons before they are actually built and deployed, Hannon said, noting that once the weaponization genie is out of the bottle, it is much harder to put it back.
Hannon also said his group isn’t opposed to the use of robotics by the military for non-combat uses such as transportation.
The coalition has no evidence to indicate any Canadian companies are working on such weaponry, and the Department of National Defence has provided assurances it hasn’t contracted any research on the subject.
“That doesn’t mean there aren’t, because there’s not a lot of transparency on this,” Hannon said.
Six countries are known to be working on the technology: the United States, Britain, Israel, China, Russia and South Korea.
Autonomous weapons don’t actually exist yet, but with the rapid advancements being made in robotics, there are troubling signs, said Peter Asaro, co-founder and of the New York-based International Committee for Robot Arms Control.
He cited the 2010 “flash crash” on New York Stock Exchange that was ignited by a frenzy of computerized trading that drove down the stock prices of major companies.
At least two companies have created prototypes of unmanned combat aircraft that are deemed to be autonomous. Another company has a partially autonomous tracking and machine-gun system on the border between North and South Korea.
Mary Wareham, a Washington-based arms expert with Human Rights Watch, said one of the aircraft makers, BAE Systems, sponsored a recent two-day symposium on the weapons in London.
“I think they realize that if they don’t show interest and at least agree to a be a bit more transparent about the systems that are being developed, then that will increase suspicion, so it’s in their interest to be transparent,” Wareham said.
Ian Kerr, a law and ethics professor at the University of Ottawa, said removing humans from the decision to kill people poses a serious moral and philosophical problem.
Critics are calling for a pre-emptive strike on so-called “killer robots” — forthcoming autonomous weapons systems that will be able to find, select and fire on a target without the intervention of human beings.
Here are three weapons that currently exist that are considered precursors to autonomous systems:
The Samsung SGR-A1 sentry gun. Currently deployed along the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, the SGR-A1 is considered partially autonomous and is capable of tracking multiple moving targets.
The Taranis unmanned combat air vehicle by BAE Systems. Currently only a demonstration model, the Taranis can fly intercontinental missions and is considered autonomous.
The X-47B unmanned air combat vehicle by Northrop Grumman. Currently only a demonstration model, the X-47B can also fly intercontinental missions and is deemed autonomous.
Countries known to be developing and testing autonomous weapons: the United States, Britain, Israel, China, Russia, South Korea.
Some 272 scientists in 37 countries are calling for a ban on the development and deployment of fully autonomous weapons.
Groups and agencies allied against autonomous weapons: Human Rights Watch, Article 36, Association for Aid and Relief Japan, International Committee for Robot Arms Control, Mines Action Canada, Nobel Women’s Initiative, PAX (formerly known as IKV Pax Christi), Pugwash Conferences on Science & World Affairs, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom