The Power of a Question in Silicon Valley

Marta Kosmyna and the Campaign’s robot in Time’s Square. Marta holds her palm to the camera with the Campaign’s avatar on it.
Marta Kosmyna, Silicon Valley Lead for the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots with robot campaigner David Wreckham. Photo: Ari Beser.
Stencilled chalk of a finger pointing. Message: “Are you helping to build #KillerRobots? Dual use tech… “
One example of chalk stenciling by the Campaign in New York near the offices of Amazon, Microsoft, Palantir and Clarafai. Photo: Clare Conboy.

Would a ban on killer robots impact research and development of artificial intelligence?

Government officials, including treaty negotiators, will need input from technical experts to ensure the treaty banning killer robots does not stifle innovation, and instead ensures that the research and development of artificial intelligence continues unhindered. Biologists have not found that the Biological Weapons Convention has hurt their research and developments, nor do chemists complain that the Chemical Weapons Convention has negatively impacted their work. In fact, if the technology to develop fully autonomous weapons is permitted to develop without regulation, many artificial intelligence experts, roboticists, and technology workers fear that positive applications of artificial intelligence will suffer. Any malfunctions, mistakes or war crimes committed by fully autonomous weapons systems would receive negative publicity, resulting in public push back on the trend to develop artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies.

One example of chalk stencilling by the Campaign in New York near the offices of Amazon, Microsoft, Palantir and Clarafai. Photo: Clare Conboy.

Does the Campaign demand that private companies should not work with militaries?

We are a single-issue coalition focused on securing a treaty to ban fully autonomous weapons and retain meaningful human control over the use of force. Our members often question specific military projects that could pave the way towards fully autonomous weapons, but we do not ask or advocate for companies not to work with militaries or governments. We advise technologists to consider the partnerships, customers, and investors they work with, and think critically about the consequential outcomes of any high-risk business relationships they enter into.

Is the Campaign against artificial intelligence in warfare and policing?

Our Campaign is not anti-technology. It does not oppose military or policing applications of artificial intelligence and emerging technologies in general. We oppose autonomy in the critical functions of selecting and engaging targets, in all circumstances. As a human-centered initiative, we believe a new international treaty banning killer robots would bring many benefits for humanity. New law would help to clarify the role of human decision-making related to weapons and the use of force in warfare, policing and other circumstances.

If we don’t build fully autonomous weapons, won’t someone else do so?

The current development of AI and emerging technologies is outpacing policymakers’ ability to regulate, and this is seen vividly in the case of fully autonomous weapons. Technology companies and workers must commit not to contribute to the development of fully autonomous weapons. Many technologies under development are “dual-use”, meaning they can be employed in various scenarios — civilian, military, policing, etc. Therefore, it is crucial that the tech sector remain vigilant and always consider the anticipated end-use.

Would fully autonomous weapons be more precise and thereby save lives?

Weapons are not designed to save lives, they are designed to take lives. Fully autonomous weapons would be unpredictable. By reacting with their environment in unexpected ways, they could cause fratricide or harm to friendly troops. Improved precision can be achieved without removing meaningful human control from individual attacks. The Campaign seeks to prohibit the development and a specific application of certain technologies, codify limits on its intended use, and ensure accountability under international law. There are no victims of killer robots yet, and we want to keep it that way.

Will a new treaty really stop killer robots? How would a ban be enforced?

Since 2014, more than 90 countries have participated in the diplomatic talks on lethal autonomous weapons systems at the United Nations and a majority of those states now see a need for a new treaty to prohibit or restrict such weapons. A handful of military powers, notably Russia and the United States, oppose any effort to regulate such weapons systems. These talks are an exercise in knowledge-building and transparency, but must result in the negotiation of a new treaty. This is the only multilateral response able to address the threat to humanity posed by autonomous weapons. The existing laws of war were written for humans, not machines, and must be strengthened to ensure accountability and future-proof against further technological developments. A new treaty would establish a powerful norm stigmatizing the removal of meaningful human control from the use of force. This would drive compliance even by countries and actors that do not initially sign.

www.stopkillerrobots.org Photo: Ari Beser. Graphic: Clare Conboy

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Stop Killer Robots

Stop Killer Robots

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With growing digital dehumanisation, the Stop Killer Robots campaign works to ensure human control in the use of force. www.stopkillerrobots.org