Autonomous Weapon Systems

A Primer on Debates over Law and Ethics of Autonomous Weapon Systems

By Kenneth Anderson, Matthew Waxman
Wednesday, July 5, 2017, 10:00 AM

For Lawfare readers interested in law and regulation of autonomous weapon systems (AWS), we’re pleased to note our new essay, recently posted to SSRN, “Debating Autonomous Weapon Systems, Their Ethics, and Their Regulation Under International Law.” It appears as a chapter in a just-published volume, The Oxford Handbook of Law, Regulation, and Technology, edited by Roger Brownsword, Eloise Scotfield, and Karen Yeung (Oxford University Press, July 2017).

Our chapter can be read on its own as a non-technical and relatively short primer on normative debates over AWS. The book in which it appears addresses emerging technologies and regulation more generally. Some readers might find it interesting to see how debates over the law, regulation, and ethics of AWS compare and contrast with those of other emerging technologies (Table of Contents tab here).

Although our chapter expresses a point of view on these normative debates (a point of view we’ve previously conveyed here, here, and elsewhere), it is intended to present, as fairly as we could in a limited space and in non-technical language, the leading positions in the debate. It's not a brief for one side or the other. Teachers looking for a basic introduction to the AWS topic for use in law, international relations, ethics, armed conflict or military studies, etc., might find it useful. For teachers of courses touching on the regulation of emerging technology more broadly, the volume as a whole is a useful introduction—the articles and their topics are well chosen and edited to ensure that they maintain a consistently explanatory tone and don’t fall into specialist jargon. It is available as a hardback, paperback, or e-book.

We’d note here that our chapter is current only as of early 2016 (and it was largely written in 2015), and as with other emerging technologies, technical advances as well as legal/regulatory developments tend to render scholarly commentary out of date relatively quickly. From the vantage point of July 2017, however, we think our article holds up pretty well.

As for more recent 2017 developments in the international AWS debate, an excellent recent Lawfare post by Rebecca Crootof and Frauke Renz provides background as well as their assessment of where they believe the AWS debate should go. They describe, among other things, recent cancellation of the scheduled August 2017 informal experts meeting under auspices of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) review process, on account of insufficient funding from states. For more background on the underlying technologies, Paul Scharre’s recent lecture (available here) provides excellent discussion of artificial intelligence and future warfare, and Michael Horowitz succinctly puts some of these issues and other military-technological developments in strategic context here.

SSRN abstract:

An international public debate over the law and ethics of autonomous weapon systems (AWS) has been underway since 2012, with those urging legal regulation of AWS under existing principles and requirements of the international law of armed conflict, on the one side, in argument with opponents who favor, instead, a preemptive international treaty ban on all such weapons, on the other. This Chapter provides an introduction to this international debate, offering the main arguments on each side. These include disputes over defining an AWS, the morality and law of automated targeting and target selection by machine, and the interaction of humans and machines in the context of lethal weapons of war. Although the Chapter concludes that a categorical ban on AWS is unjustified morally and legally — favoring the law of armed conflict’s existing case-by-case legal evaluation — it offers an exposition of arguments on each side of the AWS issue.