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Robotic weapons: researchers call for new regulations for 21st century warfare

Robotic weapons, whether autonomous or remote controlled, have generated widespread controversy in recent years. A new policy paper from the Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford, urges governments to recognise the increasing prominence of these weapons in contemporary and future forms of warfare and proposes steps towards suitable regulation.

Robotic weapons currently in use range from RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems), commonly referred to as ‘drones’, which are controlled by a human operator, to robots used to monitor border posts in the Korean Demilitarized Zone, which can potentially be programmed to identify and target individuals without direct human supervision. The debate on these types of weapons has become more confused as their use has increased; varying degrees of machine autonomy, and the differing contexts in which robotic weapons can potentially be deployed, mean a legal and ethical consensus has so far proved impossible. With more funding being channeled into the development of the next generation of military robots, confusion and controversy are likely to grow.

“It is clear that robotic weapons are here to stay, and that they will play a growing role in future armed conflicts,” says Dr Alex Leveringhaus, the paper’s lead author. “Their use is increasing in militaries around the world, as is research into new systems. A recent example is the announcement of co-operation between the UK and France on a new drone, known at the moment as the Future Combat Air System. But their use raises a multitude of legal and ethical questions. Many people are uncomfortable with the concept of an autonomous robotic weapon, or even with the idea that military personnel can ‘kill by remote control’.

“New military technologies and their deployment are in danger of outpacing the development of an appropriate regulatory framework. There is now an urgent need for states, the military and manufacturers to work together to respond to justified legal and moral concerns.”

The new Oxford Martin School policy paper, Robo-Wars: The Regulation of Robotic Weapons, gives a clear and concise overview of the technological dimensions of robotic weapons as well as their treatment under existing international legal and ethical frameworks. It assesses the regulatory options currently under discussion, and recommends ways for states, manufacturers and the military to develop a suitable regulatory framework.

Its authors, Dr Leveringhaus and Dr Gilles Giacca state that, given the complexity of the issue, neither a blanket endorsement nor condemnation of robotic weapons is feasible. Instead, regulation should be conducted on a case-by-case basis.

Their recommendations include:

  • Prioritising human oversight and control over weapons at all stages of deployment, and ensuring human operators can override the robot at any stage;
  • Implementing mechanisms to ensure human operators can be held responsible for deployment and supervision of weapons;
  • For states and the military to work together to define the contexts in which robotic weapons can be used, and prevent illegal use;
  • Ensuring new weapons comply with existing legal and ethical restrictions.

Download Robo-Wars: The Regulation of Robotic Weapons

Read Dr Alex Leveringhaus' Robo-Wars op-ed in The Times

Read an article about the policy paper in Wired

Watch a video in which Dr Alex Leveringhaus discusses autonomous weapons