— The Erimtan Angle —

Hannah Osborne writes in the International Business Times that “[l]eading scientists have warned United Nations leaders that the planet is fast approaching Doomsday and have demanded urgent action on climate change and nuclear weapons. The Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists said that Russia and the US had to restart negotiations to reduce their number of nuclear weapons, to lower the alert level threshold and to end missile defence programmes. They also said that immediate action should be taken to address climate change – and warned that the so-called Doomsday Clock stood at five minutes to midnight, unchanged for two years”.[1]

Board members of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists wrote in a letter that ” As always, new technologies hold the promise of doing great good, supplying new sources of clean energy, curing disease, and otherwise enhancing our lives. From experience, however, we also know that new technologies can be used to diminish humanity and destroy societies. We can manage our technology, or become victims of it. The choice is ours, and the Clock is ticking. Beyond the nuclear and climate threats lies a spectrum of emerging dangers – from cyber weapons to killer robots – that are further challenging humanity’s ability to manage its most advanced technologies. A careful review of these threats leads us to conclude that the risk of civilization-threatening technological catastrophe remains high . . . Despite the progress in low-carbon technologies, however, the world has failed to effectively curb emissions and adapt to a changing climate. Domestic politics have stalled efforts to cut emissions in several industrialised countries. This trend includes serious threats to renewable-energy support in the United States, the European Union, and Australia. It is clearly epitomized by Japan, which first withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol and then reneged on promises of voluntary emissions reductions. The science on climate change is clear, and many people around the world already are suffering from destructive storms, water and food insecurity, and extreme temperatures. It is no longer possible to prevent all climate change, but you can limit further suffering – if you act now”.[2]

In view of the pleas of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Jody Williams,[3] it seems that the urgency of the scientists’ argument is very pressing. As such, Williams’ Campaign to Stop Killer Robots was co-founded by the internationally-renowned organisation Human Rights Watch, which also serves as the campaign’s global coordinator. The 50-page HRW report Losing Humanity. The Case against Killer Robots, released in 2012, outlines concerns about these fully autonomous weapons, which would inherently lack human qualities that provide legal and non-legal checks on the killing of civilians. In addition, the obstacles to holding anyone accountable for harm caused by the weapons would weaken the law’s power to deter future violations.[4]

The booklet starts off in the following way: “With the rapid development and proliferation of robotic weapons, machines are starting to take the place of humans on the battlefield. Some military and robotics experts have predicted that “killer robots”—fully autonomous weapons that could select and engage targets without human intervention—could be developed within 20 to 30 years. At present, military officials generally say that humans will retain some level of supervision over decisions to use lethal force, but their statements often leave open the possibility that robots could one day have the ability to make such choices on their own power. Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) believe that such revolutionary weapons would not be consistent with international humanitarian law and would increase the risk of death or injury to civilians during armed conflict. A preemptive prohibition on their development and use is needed . . . The primary concern of Human Rights Watch and IHRC is the impact fully autonomous weapons would have on the protection of civilians during times of war. This report analyzes whether the technology would comply with international humanitarian law and preserve other checks on the killing of civilians. It finds that fully autonomous weapons would not only be unable to meet legal standards but would also undermine essential non-legal safeguards for civilians. Our research and analysis strongly conclude that fully autonomous weapons should be banned and that governments should urgently pursue that end”.[5]  HRW, in conjunction with IHRC, thus argue that the “rise of the machines”, with or without Arnold Schwarzenegger, would indeed spell the end of humanity as we know it.

The report goes into some more detail, explaining that “[r]obots are not new to the battlefield, but their expanding role encroaches upon traditional human responsibilities more than ever before. Most visibly, the use of US Predator, Reaper, and other drones in Afghanistan and elsewhere has provided an early sign of the distancing of human soldiers from their targets. Often piloted from halfway around the globe, these robotic aerial vehicles provide surveillance and identify targets before a human decides to pull the trigger, commanding the drone to deliver lethal force. In keeping with the escalating use of aerial drones, government planning documents and spending figures indicate that the military of the future will be increasingly unmanned. In recent years, for example, the US Department of Defense has spent approximately $6 billion annually on the research and development, procurement, operations, and maintenance of unmanned systems for war, and that figure is likely to increase rapidly Drones are seen as just the beginning of a technological revolution. As robotic warfare expert Peter W. Singer suggest[ed at the Hearing before the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs of the House Committee on Oversight and Governmental Reform, on 23 March 2010], ‘Predators are merely the first generation—the equivalent of the Model T Ford or the Wright Brothers’ Flyer'”.[6]

As HRW is primarily concerned with human rights, the report Losing Humanity concludes that in order “[t]o comply with international humanitarian law, fully autonomous weapons would need human qualities that they inherently lack. In particular, such robots would not have the ability to relate to other humans and understand their intentions. They could find it difficult to process complex and evolving situations effectively and could not apply human judgment to deal with subjective tests. In addition, for many the thought of machines making life-and-death decisions previously in the hands of humans shocks the conscience. This inability to meet the core principles of international humanitarian law would erode legal protections and lead fully autonomous weapons to endanger civilians during armed conflict. The development of autonomous technology should be halted before it reaches the point where humans fall completely out of the loop”.[7]


19 Nov 2012

[1] Hannah Osborne, ” Doomsday Approaching: UN Warned of Climate Change, Nuclear Weapons and Killer Robots” International Business Times (15 Jan 2014). http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/doomsday-approaching-un-warned-climate-change-nuclear-weapons-killer-robots-1432377.

[2] Hannah Osborne, ” Doomsday Approaching: UN Warned of Climate Change, Nuclear Weapons and Killer Robots”.

[3] Cfr. ” Nobel Peace Prize Winner Jody Williams: On Mines and Killer Robots ” A Pseudo-Ottoman Blog (15 Jan 2014). https://sitanbul.wordpress.com/2014/01/16/nobel-peace-prize-winner-jody-williams-on-mines-and-killer-robots/#respond.

[4] “Losing Humanity. The Case against Killer Robots” HRW (19 November 2012). http://www.hrw.org/reports/2012/11/19/losing-humanity-0.

[5] Losing Humanity. The Case against Killer Robots, pp. 1-2. http://www.hrw.org/reports/2012/11/19/losing-humanity-0.

[6] Losing Humanity. The Case against Killer Robots, p. 6.

[7] Losing Humanity. The Case against Killer Robots, p. 41.


Comments on: "Doomsday Warnings: Climate Change, Nuclear Weapons and Killer Robots" (1)

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