The World Council of Churches has issued an action guide for faith communities to respond to Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (killer robots and drones). This guide is informative for all people of faith and seek peaceful co-existence sans fear.
What Are Killer Robots?
Killer robots are also known as lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS)1. These are weapons that would, without meaningful human control, select and attack targets. They would make decisions about taking lives, whilst lacking the critical human characteristics of wisdom, judgement, responsibility, empathy, moral conscience, and compassion necessary to make such a complex choice.
Do they already exist? Armed drones do exist and are in use, but these still have a human operator controlling the weapons system – usually from a distance – who is responsible for selecting and identifying targets as well as pulling the trigger.
Are killer robots currently being developed? Systems do exist – and are under further development – that could be adapted to remove meaningful human control from the selecting and attacking of targets. Some examples of these include
a) a stationary robot in operation along the border between North and South Korea that is armed with a machine gun and a grenade launcher, and can detect human beings using infrared sensors and pattern recognition software, with the possibility of firing at them;2 and
b) a 40-metre long, 135-ton, self-navigating warship under development in the United States of America that is designed to hunt for enemy submarines and can operate without contact with a human operator for two to three months at a time. It is currently unarmed, but US representatives have said that the goal is to arm the warships within a few years. Other examples can be drawn from technologies developed in France, the United Kingdom, Israel, Russia, and China that would not need very much adaptation to become fully autonomous.
Would killer robots be legal under international law? As killer robots would operate without meaningful human control, they would face particular difficulties in complying with two fundamental rules of international humanitarian law: a) distinction and b) proportionality.
a) Warring parties must be able to distinguish between civilians and soldiers, and between civilian objects (such as homes or schools) and military targets. Killer robots would have difficulty in doing so.
b) The laws of war also require the warring parties to weigh the proportionality of an attack. Will the expected harm to civilians and civilian objects be excessive in relation to the expected military advantage? Would a “reasonable military commander” have decided it was lawful to launch the attack? In cases like these and many more, killer robots could not replace human judgement.
Fully autonomous weapons would also violate three foundational elements of human rights law: the right to life, the principle of human dignity, and the requirement of accountability. Human rights law – which is based on principles of Christian ethics – applies during times of peace as well as armed conflict. It is important to note this because it is likely that fully autonomous weapons would be used beyond the battlefield in law enforcement situations.
A Plea for Preserving our Humanity
In conjunction with the International Day of Human Fraternity 2021, the World Council of Churches, Pax Christi Northern California, and Soka Gakkai International issued a joint statement, entitled “A Plea for Preserving Our Shared Humanity,” that expresses concern over the insidious development of weapons systems that lack meaningful human control.
As people of faith, we unite our voices on the occasion of the first International Day of Human Fraternity to express concern over the insidious development of weapons systems that lack meaningful human control. Our shared belief in the inalienable dignity of the human person and the inestimable worth of human life demands our vigilance toward new forms of military technology that mediate the use of lethal force, especially in armed conflict and policing. An urgent and firm rejection of the development of fully autonomous weapons is essential to preserving our shared humanity.
The wisdom of our traditions teaches a profound reverence for life and the practice of moral virtue. The human person must never be reduced to a set of numbers, degraded of the dignity which sets us apart from machines. Machine learning that processes vast amounts of digital information tends to replicate existing biases, causing a disproportionate impact on vulnerable populations. Fully autonomous weapons would lower the threshold for international armed conflict, and they could also be used for domestic terrorism, insurrection, policing and border-control.
While advances in technology have expanded the realm of human creativity, the surrender of life-and-death decisions to robots would represent a serious abdication of human responsibility for the content and consequences of one’s actions. Artificial intelligence cannot match the uniquely human capacity for empathy, friendship, mercy, and solidarity. Paradoxically, the face-to-face encounter with human suffering preserves the humanity of warfare, which is increasingly dominated by a concern for efficiency.
Instead of placing our faith in technologies that unaccountably kill, maim and destroy human life, we devote ourselves to building cultures of peace, nonviolence, dialogue, and mutual cooperation, respecting the dignity of difference. We call on the UN member states and all people of goodwill to commit to preserving meaningful human control over the use of force, and enact a preemptive ban on fully autonomous weapons. As our technological evolution outpaces our ethical evolution, we must place firm limits on emerging technologies that undermine the ties that bind us as members of a single human family.
1 It is increasingly common for the word “Lethal” to be omitted from this description. Campaigners emphasize that the autonomous nature of the weapons should be the focus of concern rather than the outcome of their deployment (where the harm caused might not lead to death)
2 Stop Killer Robots website, https://www.stopkillerrobots.org. The SGR-A1, developed jointly by Samsung Techwin (now Hanwha Land Systems) and Korea University.