Activists, U.N. take aim at 'killer robots'

International effort to outlaw or limit fully autonomous, weaponized robots is launched at the United Nations

A movement to stop the development of so-called "killer robots" got international backing at a meeting of the United Nations this week.

At a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International Security yesterday, representatives of various organizations met to discuss ways to ban the use of "killer robots", or weaponized robots that can acquire and fire on a target without human assistance.

Monday's meeting brought concerns that activists from groups like Human Rights Watch and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots have been voicing for months.

Mary Wareham, an advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, told Computerworld that the group hopes to at least prompt a deep discussion started about an emerging group of autonomous, weaponized robots.

"We're just trying to get a formal discussion started," Wareham said. "At the moment it's just kind of floating around. Countries are raising [the issue] in national statements, but there's no been one place to address this issue internationally.

Wareham noted that Human Rights Watch isn't against robotics or even weaponized robots. The primary concern is the use of a robotics system that leaves humans out of the loop.

"Governments should never relinquish human control of targeting and attack decisions to machines," said Nobel Peace laureate Jody Williams of the Nobel Women's Initiative, a founding member of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, in a statement. "To prevent this method of warfare from ever coming into existence, nations need to start working on both national prohibitions and an international ban now."

Wareham noted that 13 countries, including Canada, Egypt, the U.S., the U.K., India, Ireland and S. Korea were represented at the U.S. meeting on Monday.

Some countries, including France, Pakistan and Egypt, have issued formal statements of support.

The UN meeting came nearly two weeks after robotics companies demonstrated their technology before invited military officers at Fort Benning in Georgia.

Four robotics companies -- Northrop Grumman, HDT Robotics, iRobot Corp. and QinetiQ -- showed off robots that can fire machine guns and hit pop-up targets from a distance of 150 meters. At least some of the robots could be equipped with grenade launchers, automatic weapons and anti-tank missiles.

Army officers at the demonstration, along with executives of the robotics companies, made it clear that humans will always be in the loop when a weaponized robot is used on the battlefield. A robot can acquire a target but a human will decide if it will fire on it, they said.

"That's the kind of thing we want," Wareham said. "We have a policy about that now, but it only lasts for five to 10 years. It's policy and not law. We want to see permanence."

Wareham said Human Rights Watch has found no country today that uses fully autonomous weaponized robots. The group hopes an international treaty can be approved before it happens.

"We haven't seen that happening but we've seen enough, from looking at the robots, of where some militaries want to head," she added. "The way technology is moving is to increasingly automate warfare."

Right now, approximately 77 countries have autonomous surveillance drones and a handful have drones that can be armed, according to Wareham.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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