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US, Russia nix formal United Nations discussions on so-called killer robots

Alpha 1E robots dance at the booth of Ubtech during the IFA, the world's leading trade show for consumer electronics and home appliances, in Berlin on August 30, 2018. (TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images)

To ban or not to ban so-called killer robots, that was the question.

And the U.S. and Russia decided the answer was no. The two countries were among a minority of others that decided to block the United Nations from taking action on the topic this week in Geneva, Switzerland, Politico reported.

On Saturday, a group at the United Nations’ Convention on Conventional Weapons discussed whether to formally begin negotiations on the weapons. Killer robots are fully autonomous weapons can fire upon targets with little or no human input or control.

What countries voted against it?

In addition to the U.S. and Russia, France, Israel, and the United Kingdom rejected the move to create new international laws on fully autonomous weapons, according to published reports. The CCW operates by consensus so just one state can oppose and potentially block a proposal to start negotiations.

If a consensus was reached, it would have been the first step toward the creation of a binding, international treaty on the robots.

“It’s a disappointment, of course, that a small minority of large military powers can hold back the will of the majority,” said Mary Wareham, coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, one of Human Rights Watch’s campaigns.

“Any one state can block any progress,” Wareham stated in Politico's report. “And that’s what’s happened here.”

Wareham’s group represents 75 non-governmental organizations in 32 countries that want a ban on weapons that use AI technology to choose targets. According to the report, 26 countries have endorsed a full ban on the weapons.

What exactly is a killer robot? Human Rights Watch offers this explanation:

Fully autonomous weapons, also known as "killer robots," would be able to select and engage targets without human intervention. Precursors to these weapons, such as armed drones, are being developed and deployed by nations including China, Israel, South Korea, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. It is questionable that fully autonomous weapons would be capable of meeting international humanitarian law standards, including the rules of distinction, proportionality, and military necessity, while they would threaten the fundamental right to life and principle of human dignity.

Human Rights Watch is pushing for a preemptive ban on the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons.

The countries that want to ban the weapons continued their push for strong regulations and urged the U.N. to begin formal negotiations next year, Politico reported. A document issued at the end of the meeting recommends that non-binding talks continue.

Why now?

A sense of urgency is evident as armies and arms manufacturers around the world are currently testing killer robots. Their developments could soon outperform existing military technology for a fraction of the cost, the report stated.

The U.N. first placed the so-called killer robots on its agenda in 2013. Since then, there has been little progress. There has not even been an agreement what constitutes a fully autonomous, lethal weapon.

Meanwhile, both sides of the issue are standing their ground.

“The rift between the different positions is getting bigger, talks this week have shown,” Frank Sauer, an autonomous weapons expert at the University of the Bundeswehr in Munich, said.

The countries are scheduled to meet again in Geneva in November.

The video below shows a Russian government robot shooting guns.

One last thing…
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