N9 Science Events 2014

N9 Science Events: December 15th, 2014.

UNOG and Lethal Autonomous Weapons

by Helen Gavaghan, Sheffield, UK

News and news feature: 15th December, 2014.
"I don't want to see full automation of warfare," said robotics expert, Noel Sharkey, today, in an exclusive interview with Nanogon. Professor Sharkey plays a key role in the international campaign to stop killer robots. He is professor emeritus in computer science at the University of Sheffield.

Otherwise known as lethal autonomous weapons, these robots are defined by the US military as being ones which once activated select a target and fire without human intervention. Part of the military motivation, says Sharkey, is to ensure the weapon cannot, en route to its target, be jammed by satellite .

In its most recent meeting last month (November, 2014) on this topic1 the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG), tasked with finding a way for the world to live with these weapons, decided a further meeting of general experts was needed to explore the nature and function, capabilities and limitations of the weapons. The meeting will take place over five days in April 2015.

Control of lethal autonomous weapons is now the hottest topic in disarmament, Professor Sharkey told me. He also said that an autonomous weapon cannot be formally verified except in the empiricism of war. This view being despite the definition he gave me from the US military. What we did not discuss was whether a robot is innately amoral.

Professor Sharkey says he is on a steep learning curve, but has been shocked by what he has found out about autonomous weapons, and does not want his grandchildren to live in a world where machines make kill decisions. He thinks that increasingly military thinking is coming in line with his own. And he laboured the point that the principle of distinction is key to military engagement. Professor Sharkey's understanding of the principle is that collateral damage in the form of civilian deaths must be proportionate to the military gain. He did, however, also say that he thought it would be helpful to have greater military input to discussions about lethal autonomous weapons.

Professor Sharkey is a founder of an international non-governmental organisation (NGO) called the International Commission for Robot Arms Control, and a founder of the campaign to stop killer robots.

After the April 2015 UNOG meeting of general experts Professor Sharkey would like to see the debate raised a diplomatic notch, and become one in which government experts participate.

Though now a frequent flyer to Geneva, New York, military academies and academic venues globally as an activist seeking the prohibition of the development, use and production of autonomous weapon systems, Professor Sharkey began his career as a psychiatric nurse. "I left school at 15," he told me, "before taking 'O' and 'A' levels as a mature student, and then gaining a first in psychology at the age of 28 from the University of Exeter."

Since then his academic career has also covered linguistics, artificial intelligence and computer science, all of which give him stellar credentials for talking about robotics in either a military or civilian setting. He has never received military funding for his research, nor been involved in work requiring a security clearance.

1. The United Nations Office at Geneva: Lethal Autonomous Weapons.
Though the last meeting on this topic was in November 2014, this link on 15th December, 2014 was to the previous meeting of May 2014.

Minor editing correction made 11.35pm 15th December, 2014.
Further minor editing corrections and typos
corrected 16th December, 2014 by Helen Gavaghan.

CLICK ON: UNOG: Lethal autonomous weapons

17th December, 2014: Story rechecked by Helen Gavaghan at 08.36 gmt. Capitalised the letter 'p' in Professor Sharkey for house style conformity.

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