• Switzerland's news in English

UN talks in Geneva aim to stop 'killer robots'

Jonathan Fowler/AFP · 13 May 2014, 10:31

Published: 13 May 2014 10:31 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

That dark vision could all too easily shift from science fiction to fact with disastrous consequences for the human race, unless such weapons are banned before they leap from the drawing board to the arsenal, campaigners warn.
On Tuesday, governments begin holding the first-ever talks focussed exclusively on so-called "lethal autonomous robots".
The four-day session of the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons in Geneva could chart the path towards preventing the nightmare scenario evoked by opponents, ahead of a fresh session in November.
"Killer robots would threaten the most fundamental of rights and principles in international law," warned Steve Goose, arms division director at Human Rights Watch.
"We don't see how these inanimate machines could understand or respect the value of life, yet they would have the power to determine when to take it away," he told reporters on the eve of the talks.
"The only answer is a preemptive ban on fully autonomous weapons," he added.
Goose's organization came together with a host of others to form the Campaign To Stop Killer Robots in April 2013, prodding nations into action.
Robot weapons are already deployed around the globe.
The best-known are drones, unmanned aircraft whose human controllers push the trigger from a far-distant base. Controversy rages, especially over the civilian collateral damage caused when the United States strikes alleged Islamist militants.
Perhaps closest to the Terminator-type killing machine portrayed in Arnold Schwarzenegger's action films is a Samsung sentry robot used in South Korea, with the ability to spot unusual activity, talk to intruders and, when authorized by a human controller, shoot them.
Then there is the Phalanx gun system, deployed on US Navy ships, which can search for enemy fire and destroy incoming projectiles all by itself, or the X47B, a plane-sized drone able to take off and land on aircraft carriers without a pilot and even refuel in the air.
Other countries on the cutting edge include Britain, Israel, China, Russia and Taiwan.
But it's the next step, the power to kill without a human handler, that rattles opponents of lethal autonomous robots the most.
"Checking the legitimacy of targets and determining proportional response requires deliberative reasoning," said Noel Sharkey, emeritus professor of robotics and artificial intelligence at Britain's University of Sheffield.
Experts predict that military research could produce such killers within 20 years, leaving current systems looking as obsolete as steam engines.

Power of life and death 

Story continues below…

Supporters of robot weapons say they offer life-saving potential in warfare, being able to get closer than troops to assess a threat properly, without tiring, becoming frightened or letting emotion cloud their decision-making.
But that is precisely what worries their critics.
"It's totally unconscionable that human beings think that it's OK to cede the of power and life over other humans to machinery," said Jody Williams, who won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for her campaign for a land-mine ban treaty.
"If we don't inject a moral and ethical discussion into this, we won't control warfare," she said.
In November 2012, Washington imposed a 10-year human-control requirement for robot weapons, welcomed by campaigners as a first step.
Britain has said that existing arms control rules are sufficient to stem the risks.
But opponents say a specific treaty is essential because unclear ground rules could leave dangerous loopholes, not only for their use in warfare but also in policing.
"We would like this week to begin to build a consensus around the concept that there must always be meaningful human control over targeting and kill decisions, on the battlefield and in law enforcement situations," said Goose.
"Trying to rely on existing international humanitarian or human rights law and perhaps some concept of best principles simply will not suffice to ensure that these weapons are never developed, never produced, never used," he said.
With robotics research also being deployed for fire-fighting and bomb disposal, Sharkey underlined that the objection is not to autonomy per se.
"I have a robot vacuum cleaner at home, it's fully autonomous and I do not want it stopped," he said.
"There is just one thing that we don't want, and that's what we call the kill function."

Jonathan Fowler/AFP (news@thelocal.ch )

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Montreux throws hat in Olympic rings
Could Montreux host the 2026 Games? Photo: Ivo Scholz/Swiss Tourism

Montreux is to put itself forward as the host city for the 2026 winter Olympics as part of a potential bid by the cantons of Valais and Vaud.

Geneva car share scheme could help reduce city traffic
Catch a Car is aimed at short hops within a city. Photo: Catch a Car

Catch a Car, already in Basel, launches in Geneva next month.

Swiss women will ‘work for free’ for the rest of year
Female employees in Switzerland earn 19.3 percent less than their male colleagues. File photo: Randy Kashka

Switzerland's gender pay gap means from today, Friday October 21st, women in the country will effectively be working for free for the rest of 2016.

Swiss luxury watches stolen in Paris raid
Police outside the Girard-Perregaux watch store on Thursday. Photo: Bertrand Guay/AFP

The 10 Girard-Perregaux watches are worth half a million euros in total.

Brother-in-law arrested over murder of Swiss teacher
The victim worked in a school in Stabio, near the town of Mendrisio. Photo: Oliver Graf

The primary school teacher was found dead in Ticino earlier this week.

Inside Switzerland’s largest nuclear bunker – 40 years on
Designed to house 20,000 people, the bunker was built in and over two motorway tunnels. Photo: Unterirdisch Ueberleben

The Local takes a tour of the Sonnenberg bunker in Lucerne, opened 40 years ago at the height of the Cold War.

Ten Swiss ski resorts named most expensive in Europe
File photo: Renato Bagattini/Swiss Tourism

Skiers in Switzerland pay the highest prices for their ski passes of anywhere in Europe, according to research.

Eco group fights Bern over wind farm plans
There are currently more than 30 wind farms in Switzerland. Photo: Alpiq

Wind turbines are “gigantic and destructive” machines, says Paysage Libre Suisse.

Vegan wins battle to be accepted by Swiss army
Antoni Da Campo will now carry out his military service. Photo: Antoni Da Campo

A Swiss man who was told he would not be accepted for military service because of his strict veganism has finally succeeded in making the army change its mind.

Geneva terror suspects to receive compensation
File photo: Emran Kassim

The Swiss public prosecutor has dropped the case against them.

Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Photo: Richard Juilliard/AFP
Man makes Geneva airport bomb threat ‘for a joke’
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
Photo: AFP
Solar Impulse team reveals plans for unmanned plane
File photo: Martin Abegglen
Swiss to vote on passport rules for 3rd gen foreigners
Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Photo: AFP
Swiss wingsuit hotspot Lauterbrunnen won’t impose ban
Photo: Swiss Tourism
Six reasons Switzerland isn’t as boring as you might think
Photo: Swiss Tourism
Report: Switzerland one of world’s best places for girls
Photo: The Local
Thief returns Swiss cow bells worth thousands
File photo: Wikimedia Commons
One in three rapists isn’t locked up: statistics
Photo: activistin.ch
Tampon-tax protest turns Zurich fountains red
Photo: AFP
Geneva police to lift ban on bearded officers
Photo: Marcel Gillieron/AFP
Suicide chef’s restaurant keeps Michelin stars
Photo: Lara de Salis
11 things the Swiss get tired of hearing abroad
Photo:  Ivo Scholz/Swiss-image.ch
Survey: expats in Switzerland have money but few friends
Photo: AFP
Swiss press criticize Bern’s 'capitulation' on immigration
Photo: Jura Trois Lacs tourism
German ex-policeman is Swiss city’s new hermit
Photo: Dmitry A. Mottl
Ticino votes to favour local workers over foreigners
Photo: file
Some deodorants could cause breast cancer: Swiss study
Photo: Royal Savoy
In pictures: Inside the latest Swiss luxury hotel
Photo: AFP
Geneva airport bomb hoaxer faces 90,000-franc bill
Photo: Schaffhausen police
Mother leaves toddler son alone in car to go clubbing
Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP
Swiss populist attacked by knife-wielding pensioner
Photo: File
Bern argues over passports for 3rd generation foreigners
Photo: Broad Bean Media
Muslim pupils must shake hands – ‘no ifs and buts’
jobs available