Over the last decade, the pace of technological advance has raised the prospect of lethal autonomous weapons systems, or ‘killer robots’ - weapons that can make the decision to kill without meaningful human control.
Since 2013 UNA-UK has campaigned against the dehumanisation of warfare through the global campaign to Stop Killer Robots and since 2014 the issue has been discussed at the United Nations in Geneva via a body which aims to ban or restrict the use of inhumane weapons. In 2019 the UN Secretary-General called for a ban on these weapons, saying they are "politically unacceptable and morally despicable".
While the UK insists it is not planning on developing killer robots, the UK's direction of travel, as revealed in its March 2021 Integrated Review, raises serious concerns. UNA-UK has joined with members of the UK Campaign to Stop Killer Robots to respond - a summary of our findings can be found below:
- The boom in spending on military AI announced in the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy is pressing ahead in an ethical vacuum, without the necessary regulatory, legal and operational controls.
- Urgent questions need answering around whether the UK's planned and future weapons systems may be able to target and kill humans autonomously.
- Autonomy in weapons systems is drastically and permanently changing the face of armed conflict but the Integrated Review does not include a commitment to upgrade arms control treaties to tackle the threats emanating from such rapid changes.
- Prioritising AI development without establishing a robust international framework to prevent the dehumanisation of conflict and automated killing would see the UK locked into an unwinnable arms race, with grave knock-on effects for humanity.
- The UK Government should affirm its opposition to all weapons systems capable of targeting people autonomously and build on the Integrated Review with a firm commitment to work towards a new binding international treaty to prohibit the development of lethal autonomous weapons systems as well as develop an ethical code to govern how new military technologies are used by the UK.
Autonomous swarming drones
One area that merits close scrutiny is the UK's planned investment of at least £6.6bn in Research and Development (R&D) over the next four years. This spending will support the development of “next generation” weapons, with the Royal Air Force receiving more than £2bn for the Future Combat Air System, which will “deliver an innovative mix of crewed, uncrewed and autonomous platforms including swarming drones." In addition, new investment in the Royal Navy is described as focusing on improving its “lethality” and making it more “modern, high-tech and automated.”
The Integrated Review rightly points out the risks associated with the unscrupulous use of AI by others, but it misses the opportunity to reassure the international community that its own autonomous systems will be developed with corresponding oversight mechanisms to give assurance that UK weapons will not fall short on meaningful human control or be developed or used in other unacceptable ways, such as for the autonomous targeting of people.
The UK Campaign to Stop Killer Robots believes that plans for investment in military AI and autonomy must be accompanied by a commitment to work internationally to upgrade arms control treaties to ensure that human rights, ethical and moral standards are retained. In this regard, we welcome the UK’s acknowledgement of the critical importance that the “UK remains at the forefront of the rapidlyevolving debate on responsible development and use of AI and Autonomy, working with liberaldemocratic partners to shape international legal, ethical & regulatory norms & standards".
We hope this is a signal that the UK will support the UN Secretary-General’s appeal for states to develop a new, binding treaty to prohibit the development of lethal autonomous weapons systems. We therefore recommend the Government conducts a thorough consultation process as it develops its upcoming AI Strategy, which should include consideration of how to promote effective international controls on the development and use of autonomous weapons.
The Integrated Review - further info
This workstream forms part of a range of interactions and representations UNA-UK has made with respect to the Integrated Review.
- Read the UK Campaign to Stop Killer Robots' full response to the Integrated Review
- Read the UK Campaign to Stop Killer Robots' submission to the Integrated Review
- Read UNA-UK's full response spanning the major issues we work on
- Read our evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s Inquiry on the Government’s inquiry
- Read further evidence, co-written with our colleagues at Protection Approaches, concentrating on the need for an Atrocity Prevention strategy
UNA-UK is a founding member of the Stop Killer Robots global campaign and hosts the coordinator for the Coordinator for the UK chapter of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.
Image: Graphic taken from the UK's Defence Command Paper, published March 2021, Open Government Licence v3.0