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Resistance to killer robots growing

March 24, 2019

Activists from 35 countries met in Berlin this week to call for a ban on lethal autonomous weapons, ahead of new talks on such weapons in Geneva. They say that if Germany took the lead, other countries would follow.

Protesters in Berlin demonstrating against killer robots
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Kumm

"I can build you a killer robot in just two weeks," says Noel Sharkey as he leans forward with a warning gaze. The white-haired English professor is a renowned specialist for robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). He was in Berlin to participate in an international meeting of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots that ended on Friday.

Sharkey objects to talking about "lethal autonomous weapons systems" (LAWs) as if they were something out a science-fiction novel. Fully autonomous weapons systems are in fact a well-established reality, he says, adding that there is no need to argue about the definition thereof: These are weapons that seek, select and attack targets on their own.

That is also how the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) defines them. Soldiers no longer push the firing button with such weapons; instead, the weapons themselves use built-in software to find and strike targets. Such weapons can come in the form of missiles, unmanned ground vehicles, submarines, or swarms of mini-drones.

The reality of fully automated autonomous weapons systems was on full display this February at IDEX in Abu Dhabi, the largest arms fair in the Middle East, where German arms manufacturers also enthusiastically hawked their new weapons with autonomous functions.

Read more: Should 'killer robots' be banned?

Combat robot  'Piranya' at a weapons show in Ukraine
LAWs developers argue that using unmanned tanks saves soldiers' livesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Dolzhenko

Violation of international law

The ICRC says that the use of such weapons is a clear breach of international law. "We all know that a machine is incapable of making moral decisions," emphasizes Sharkey, one of the leading figures in the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. He notes that a machine cannot differentiate between combatants and civilians as stipulated by international law, referring to failed attempts at facial recognition in which innocent civilians were identified as supposed criminals.

Facial recognition depends on artificial intelligence (AI) to autonomously find a person of interest. Once the machine has identified that person, it can attack on its own. A growing number of critics are horrified by such a scenario.

Germany's position 'too soft'

Meanwhile, some 100 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have joined the global Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. At their Berlin meeting, those groups called on Germany to demand that autonomous weapons systems that violate international law be banned. The current German government affirmed such intentions in its coalition negotiations in 2018. Nevertheless, it has meekly pushed only for non-binding political declarations at the UN in Geneva.

"That isn't enough to establish a ban," says Thomas Küchenmeister of the NGO Facing Finance. He says the German government should join the 28 countries currently pushing for a ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the European Parliament are also in favor of a ban. Recently, the German Informatics Society (GI), an organization of computer researchers, as well as the influential Federal Association of German Industry (BDI), also called for a legally binding ban on LAWs.

Read more: 'Killer robots': autonomous weapons pose moral dilemma  

The UN building in Geneva
New talks on regulating autonomous weapons will start at the UN in Geneva on March 25Image: picture-alliance/G. Fischer

Germany providing 'cover' for countries opposed to a ban

Although countries such as the USA and China are leading the world in AI use, much of the research that such systems depend on comes from Europe. That lends great weight to European voices in the ongoing debate. Noel Sharkey is convinced: "If Germany takes the lead, others will follow." Sharkey also warns that non-binding political declarations, like those the German government is currently championing, provide "perfect cover" for countries opposed to a ban. Such countries include Russia, Israel and the USA.

The German government has argued that it is essentially in favor of a ban, but that it has pushed the notably weaker political declaration for tactical reasons. The logic behind that approach is that it allows Germany to maintain a dialogue with countries such as the USA, rather than alienating them altogether.

Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams is wholly unconvinced by that argument. Speaking in Berlin, she called on German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas to reconsider his position. Williams argued that anyone waiting for the USA to come out in favor of a ban will be waiting forever.

International talks on how to regulate LAWs will be held in Geneva, Switzerland, from March 25 to March 29.   
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