ICRAC second statement on Overarching Issues, 2015 CCW Expert Meeting

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On Thursday April 16, ICRAC’s Dr. Peter Asaro delivered the following statement to the informal meeting of experts at the United Nations in Geneva.

Thank you Mr. Chair.

In response to China’s question, a number of security experts have pointed to the danger of mass attack by conventional weapons on strategically important installations.  Autonomous weapons would open new modes for such attacks, and would heighten the risk of preemptive attacks up to and including nuclear weapons.

I would like comment on the survey results presented by Professor Horowitz, and the conclusions he asks us to draw from them.

You are correct that public opinion is not equivalent to public conscience. Unfortunately, we know all too well that the desires of the majority can often result in the injustices towards a minority. And while opinions may shift, the underlying moral principles upon which they are built do not, namely the moral foundations of human rights and human dignity, and respect for the law.

It is difficult to determine the exact causes for difference in the results between your survey and previous ones without knowing the methodological details of your survey. You claim that the differences you found in your results are due to the presentation of additional contextual information. Yet, the survey you are comparing it to, which was presented at a side event on Tuesday by the OpenRoboethics Initative, actually provided more situational and contextual information than your survey, and compared responses to more alternatives than your survey, including remote operated weapons such as drones, and questions of offensive and defensive uses.

More importantly, for public opinion to serve as an indicator of the public conscience, it is necessary to clearly demonstrate its relationship to underlying moral values.

In the survey conducted by the Open Roboethics Initiative there were separate questions investigating the reasons underlying the general opinions elicted from respondents.  Concurring somewhat with your findings, the strongest reason indicated for supporting the use of autonomous weapons was to save the lives of the soldiers of your own nation. Furthermore, the primary reason given by the overwhelming majorities of multiple nations for rejecting the use of autonomous weapons is that it was simply wrong for machines to make life and death decisions, followed by reasons such as the  fears of the risks of errors and failures, and the risks from the proliferation of these weapons.

It would thus seem that a reasonable explanation of your survey results is that you have conflated the desire to protect troops, and desire for self-defense with participants opinions on autonomous weapons.  Rather than offering informational context, the structure of the question has combined multiple factors and skewed the responses.

I would thus respectfully submit that in addition to public opinion polls, we should confer with the legal and ethical experts we heard from this morning and well as our own individual moral conscience.


  1. Faculty Member, Peter Asaro Quoted in Globe and Mail Article | SMS News - April 17, 2015

    […] Asaro also delivered this statement to the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons in Geneva on April 16, 2015: http://icrac.net/2015/04/icrac-second-statement-on-overarching-issues-2015-ccw-expert-meeting/ […]