Reluctance on arms control extends to autonomous systems

Jan 12, 2018 | Devin Entrikin

Russian and U.S. diplomats opposed commencing formal negotiations on legal or politically binding international measures aimed at governing the development, possession, or use of lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) at the first Group of Governmental Experts meeting held on the topic in November 2017.  

Representatives from 86 countries participated in the meeting organized by the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), which has held several informal discussions on LAWS in recent years. 

Russian delegates argued that harmonizing definitions on LAWS should be a precursor to formal negotiations so as to avoid adoption and ratification issues down the line. Additionally, Russia asserted that the lack of “working samples” of LAWS, and the complexity and array of prospective weapons deem any ban or restrictions on LAWS premature. The United States argued that the application of autonomy in military weapons is not necessarily a negative development and that existing domestic regulations and international humanitarian law already govern its proper use. 

The United States and Russia are likely to try to influence the debate on LAWS during subsequent sessions of the Group of Experts, while avoiding any attempts to limit their freedom of action by agreeing to restrictions at the international level. The United States has used this approach in past negotiations on small arms control and the regulation of the conventional weapons trade more broadly.

Non-governmental networks of actors such as the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and norm entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, among others, are actively pushing for a ban on LAWS in the hopes of preventing a military artificial intelligence arms race. There appears to be enough political buy in (with 91 countries voting to continue formal discussions on LAWS) to keep the process moving forward within the CCW. However, funding difficulties and major power push back could keep the CCW process from advancing at a pace that would appease non-governmental players and some governments, leaving open the possibility of forum shopping.

Until substantive progress is made, policymakers are likely to continue to question whether a ban on fully autonomous offensive weapons is the right approach or if policymakers should instead focus on adapting regulations within existing legal frameworks. Getting buy-in from major military powers, such as the United States and Russia, will also remain a challenge. Finding ways to balance the regulation of LAWS with the dual-use nature of artificial intelligence and more clearly defining the concept of autonomy could help to clear a path to formal negotiations.