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Nineteen member states to the United Nations’ Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) have supported a call to ban Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS) in response to growing fears that the pace of technological advancement far exceeds discussion, consideration, and agreement on how these weapons should be managed in accordance with current international frameworks. The action, headed by eminent Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robotics academics and professionals attending the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI) was delivered to the UN in an open letter statement warning that AI weapons pose a threat to humanity by becoming the “third revolution in warfare” following gunpowder and nuclear weapons.
Innovations in science and technology produce meaningful and often powerful changes in societal perspectives, advancement, and learning. 21st-century digital developments have opened areas of inquiry and practice previously believed to only be in the realm of fiction. Yet, the momentum of discovery also invites potentially unchecked, unknown, and unintended consequences. As such, the reaction to this very concern has encouraged the growth of civil society advocates to warn against a narrowing frame of time in which to secure international agreements that provide protocols and limitations to the development of automated AI military weapons.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the move towards AI warfare “may directly affect the preconditions of peace, the nature of conflicts and how insecurity is perceived and managed, by people and states.”
From this perspective, Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) are a credible and terrifying threat, however so too are the conventional warfare weapons of gunpowder and nuclear weapons, which remain as destructive as ever.
Meanwhile, the UN’s Office of Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) presented its Small Arms Report to the UN General Assembly in July, detailing the impact and circulation of small arms on civilian populations across the world. Amongst some of the key findings, the report detailed that “more than half a million people die a violent death each year” in direct connection with the accessibility and availability of small arms.
Explosive Remnants of War (ERW), including unexploded bombs and landmines, are another form of conventional weapons that directly impact civilians and societies well beyond the time of conflict in which they were intended to be used. For example, recent unexploded bombs, dating from World War II, were found in Germany earlier this month, which required the evacuation of tens of thousands of civilians in order to ensure the safe removal of the bombs.
Landmines, meanwhile, also continue to kill, maim, and deny safety and livelihoods to populations living in many areas where conflicts prevail, or have formally ceased, often decades ago. Landmine Monitor’s most recent annual report (2016) found the total number of new landmine victims across the world, in 2015, reached a decade high. Similar to the casualty rate realized through small arms violence, the majority of people impacted by ERWs are civilians, of which approximately a third are identified to be children.
Beyond the pervasive insecurity of small and lightweight conventional weapons, heightened threats from state actors to use nuclear weapons as political deterrents have also increased dramatically. This second revolution in warfare remains the ultimate and most terrifying of weapons, as it guarantees mass and indiscriminate destruction of life and environment. Nevertheless, in spite of the accepted understanding that nuclear impacts are irreversible and catastrophic, attempts to bring state political actors to a point of common agreement on disarmament remain elusive.
North Korea’s latest nuclear detonation has attracted swift and strong condemnation from the international community and provoked the UN Security Council to convene an emergency meeting to discuss diplomatic and trade sanction pathways. Complex high-level negotiations will undoubtedly ensue, however it may be the most basic of intuitions that need to be re-expressed to promote understanding.
Stark warning from practitioners who can best forecast the capacities of AI weaponry should be cause enough for the rest of us to pause and reflect. Particularly considering our record for managing the insecurities of gunpowder and nuclear weapons remains poor. Innovations in AI weaponry developments will likely revolutionize warfare, however, the most absolute threat remains nuclear. In the words of a Japanese hibakusha, “Nuclear weapons are an absolute evil that threaten to extinguish the entire human family.” The meaning of these words remains as relevant today as when they were first penned in a Letter of Protest by Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba from the City of Hiroshima, to Chairman Kim Jong-Il of the DPRK in 2009. Now, more than ever, is the time for the whole human family to work towards collective peaceful solutions to all forms of warfare threats and insecurity.