Lost in Translation – Building a Common Language for Regulating Autonomous Weapons

by Marc Canellas and Rachel Haga

Autonomous weapons systems (AWS) are already here. Although some of the colloquial names for AWS may suggest science fiction (killer robots [1], [2], terminators [3], and cyborg assassins [3]), these systems are anything but fiction. Since the 1970s the U.S. Navy’s “Phalanx” Close-In Weapon System has been capable of “autonomously performing its own search, detect, evaluation, track, engage and kill assessment functions” against high-speed threats such as missiles, ships, aircraft, and helicopters [4]. Not limited to the U.S., Germany has developed a similar land vehicle defense system, the Active Vehicle Protection System, which has a reaction time of less than 400 ms when launching fragmentation grenades against incoming missiles [5].
AWS are possible due to the convergence of new technology supply and well-established military demand [6]. The drivers of military demand can be summed up as force multiplication, expanding the battle-space, extending the warfighters’ reach, and casualty reduction [7]. As for technology supply, over the past three decades, sensors and transmitters have decreased in cost while increasing in functionality. As a result, AWS sit at the intersection of novel automation capable of making decisions without humans and established lethal weapons.

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