Autonomous Weapon Systems and Strategic Stability

Building on arguments previously developed for a blog post, ICRAC’s Juergen Altmann and Frank Sauer discuss the strategic implications of autonomy in weapon systems in more depth in a recently published article in Survival. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

In July 2015, an open letter from artificial-intelligence experts and roboticists
called for a ban on autonomous weapon systems (AWS), comparing
their revolutionary potential to that of gun powder and nuclear weapons.

According to a 2012 Pentagon directive, AWS are weapon systems which,
‘once activated … can select and engage targets without further intervention
by a human operator’. Proponents of AWS have suggested that they
could offer various benefits, from reducing military expenditure to ringing
in a new era of more humane and less atrocious warfare. By contrast, critics
– some characterising AWS as ‘killer robots’ – expect the accompanying
political, legal and ethical risks to outweigh these benefits, and thus argue
for a preventive prohibition.

AWS are not yet operational, but decades of military research and development,
as well as the growing technological overlap between the rapidly
expanding commercial use of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, and
the accelerating ‘spin-in’ of these technologies into the military realm, make
autonomy in weapon systems a possibility for the very near future. Military
programmes adapting key technologies and components for achieving
autonomy in weapon systems, as well as the development of prototypes
and doctrine, are well under way in a number of states.

Accompanying this work is a rapidly expanding body of literature on the
various technical, legal and ethical implications of AWS. However, one particularly
crucial aspect has – with exceptions confirming the rule – received
comparably little systematic attention: the potential impact of autonomous
weapon systems on global peace and strategic stability.
By drawing on Cold War lessons and extrapolating insights from the
current military use of remotely controlled unmanned systems, we argue
that AWS are prone to proliferation and bound to foment an arms race
resulting in increased crisis instability and escalation risks. We conclude
that these strategic risks justify a critical stance towards AWS.

Read the full article here: Altmann, Jürgen/Sauer, Frank 2017: Autonomous Weapon Systems and Strategic Stability, in: Survival 59 (5): 117-142.

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