Panel Discussion on November 5, 2015 at uOttawa Faculty of Law
Moderator: Carissima Mathen
It was a packed room with people either interested to hear what Canada’s role in banning killer robots could be, or curious about what the heck killer robots are. When I mention killer robots to friends and family, people either respond with nervous laughter and ask if this is a serious problem, because after all Asimov has told us robots must follow three laws, thus humans have nothing to worry about. Another response questions why this is an issue at all, because war robots and drones already exist. For the most part, people humour me as I explain that first off this is not a figment of science fiction for future humans to worry about, secondly Asimov’s three rules are fiction (and not entirely workable in real life), and third that while countries do use robots and drones in war, a human is kept in the loop and there is meaningful human control.
Conversely, killer robots or lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) are machines used in place of humans where a human is able to step out of the loop. The kill decision is delegated to the robot. As panelist Ian Kerr noted, this brings up political, legal and moral issues.
Canada hasn’t yet taken a position on the ban of killer robots, but with the recent change in government, the panelists don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it may actually be a good thing that Canada is starting fresh. Canada is full of potential in regards to technology, innovation, and the bright minds to back that up.
The potential for great leadership is there. We are at a crucial starting point; ironically as panelist Mary Wareham said, the terminology is in flux and the groundwork is being laid, yet the Campaign may actually be too late. Consider the TPP: negotiations began in 2002 and Canada declined to participate in 2006. After the US joined in 2009, Canada tried unsuccessfully to get a seat at the table but wasn’t allowed in until 2012. Negotiations concluded this past summer and a deal was agreed upon in October 2015. It’s hard to not question whether Canada’s late arrival to the party ultimately meant a weaker bargaining hand resulting in a bad deal. Canada should take more of a lead in world issues; indeed the Liberal government has said that they will work with both experts and civil society to form a position on killer robots. We must go further than international law, as international humanitarian law (IHL) was designed to restrain human behaviour, not the behaviour of machines acting outside of human control.
IHL principles and past treaties are a starting point. While some may question the efficacy of a ban, we owe it to the human race to at least try to think about these challenging issues and put into place some sort of limit on this technology. A prohibition on future weapons is not impossible; we have done it before with the preemptive ban on blinding lasers.
The panelists highlighted how it is foolish to think that one nation would be able to develop and control killer robots; the reality is that it would not take long for state foes or criminal elements to also gain access to the technology. There is also the possibility of robots with advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning being incapable of control by any human. Not only would LAWS fail to comply with the fundamental principles of IHL (proportionality, distinction, and military necessity), but also machines that decide whom to kill, would likely also decide when to start and finish a war, regardless of what humans think. The result could be lethal autonomous robots that are not controlled by any state and may even be uncontrollable.
States may argue that there is the line between LAWS motivated by a legitimate demand for security and defence and those solely motivated by a desire to display a demonstration of force. There is also the catch-22 that we simply cannot wait until killer robots are out there to begin drafting laws, yet we are faced with the immense challenge of drafting laws based on a completely new technology, one in which we can only speculate about the outcome.
The new government was elected on a platform of change and it has many, many items on its to-do list. However, we cannot sit passively while other states forge the future of LAWS, Canada must take a position and it must do so quickly. The Liberal government is lucky in that it has many experts willing and able to step up and help Canada form a position. It is likely that a brand new legal instrument is needed, one that clarifies the legality of weapons and attacks with definitions and examples, facilitates enforcement, as well as increases the stigma associated with the use of such weapons.
As panelist Paul Hannon said, it only takes a few minutes to write a letter or email to your MP to let them know killer robots are a concern worth investing time discussing. You can mail a letter free (no postage required) to: House of Commons, Ottawa, ON, Canada, K1A 0A6.
* Chelsey Colbert-Pollard is a second year student at University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law, Common Law Section. She is also a Research Assistant for Professors Kerr and Geist, and a member of the Law and Technology Student Society.