Activists against the development of robots that would select and attack targets without any human input accuse the US and Russia of frustrating international efforts aimed at outlawing the development of these weapons.
The leader of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a coalition of non-governmental organizations, has called on Japan to demonstrate "bold leadership" and join the growing number of states and international organizations that are calling for a ban on the development of weapons systems that would be able to select and attack targets independent of any human intervention.
Mary Wareham, arms advocacy director for Human Rights Watch and the global coordinator for the killer robots campaign, was in Tokyo on Saturday to attend a symposium on the issue at the University of Tokyo. She also met with Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya to present her case.
Wareham described efforts by a number of nations to develop and deploy artificial intelligence-guided weapons systems as "a fundamental threat to humanity." She said creating robots that are capable of attacking without any human control is "outsourcing killing."
"International law was written for humans, not machines, and it urgently needs to be strengthened to tackle the serious threats posed by killer robots," she said during a press conference in Tokyo.
"Japan should turn its statements on the need to retain meaningful human control over the use of force into action by cooperating with like-minded nations to open negotiations on a new treaty to ban killer robots," she added.
Wareham described efforts to deploy artificial intelligence-guided weapons systems as 'a fundamental threat to humanity'
'Japan should be proactive'
"Instead of a back-seat role in the international talks on killer robots, Japan should take the lead and actively help negotiate a treaty," Wareham noted.
The Japanese government has issued no statement on the issue since her meeting with the ministers.
The campaign to counter unrestricted robots on the battlefield began in 2013 and today has the support of 57 nations and 113 non-governmental organizations. The first country to support the campaign was Pakistan; the position of the government there was in part a result of the frequent use of US drones against insurgents in the border region with Afghanistan.
But the international community has yet to reach a consensus on a binding agreement to ban killer robots, which Wareham says would be comparable to the 1999 pact that outlawed landmines and the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which went into effect in August 2010.
92 nations attended the eighth Convention on Chemical Weapons meeting on lethal autonomous weapons systems, held in Geneva in August, but there was no deal on signing a formal agreement.
Wareham blamed Russia and the US for the lack of agreement. She said the two countries repeatedly refused to accept any reference in the meeting's final report to the need for "human control" over the use of force.
The Russian representative also claimed it's "premature" to discuss the potential dangers of autonomous weapons systems "until they are produced," she said.
A number of other countries, including Israel, South Korea and the United Kingdom, have similarly refused to sign up to a binding agreement.
Wareham argues that if the international community delays legislation until the weapons have already been developed, then it will be much more difficult to prevent the systems from being used.
'No plans to acquire'
And while Japan has participated in talks on killer robots and repeatedly stated that it has "no plans" to acquire or deploy the technology, it has not supported the calls for a new treaty.
Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University, pointed out that Japan "is in a fairly dangerous neighborhood and won't want to rule out any options that might enhance its battlefield options."
While Tokyo may have expressed support for a ban on the development of autonomous battlefield robots, there are many reasons why they could make up an important part of Japan's defenses, the expert said.
"If you can replace soldiers with robots then you bring down casualty numbers and limit public fallout," he said. "Robots would also offset Japan's demographic time-bomb and any impact on its security capacity."
With a falling population and a growing number of elderly people, Japan's Self-Defense Forces are finding it increasingly difficult to fill positions across its land, sea and air forces, so it would make sense for Japan "to use technology to offset its demographic decline," Kingston told DW.
Another factor for Japan would be the export potential of robot technology, an area in which Japan is a recognized world-leader. The sector could also become a significant source of income, Kingston said.
But Wareham insists that the "many fundamental moral, ethical, legal, operational, technical, proliferation, international stability and other concerns raised by killer robots are multiplying, rather than diminishing."
Among the supporters of a ban are United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Nobel Peace Prize laureates and, increasingly, artificial intelligence and robotics experts who understand the full implications of their work.
"The campaign is gathering momentum and we still see an international treaty as inevitable," she said. "It's just a case of who is going to negotiate it, where it will be inaugurated and how strong it will be."