Do previous instances of weapons regulation offer any useful concepts for governing lethal autonomous weapon systems?

Here is our first question on lethal autonomous weapon systems this month. If you have any thoughts about answers, let us know in the comments.

The question for me at least is whether or not we can draw parallels between regulation of the human and regulation of the machine. The problem here is that there are no clear and simple ways of holding a machine to account, so the question of responsibility and therefore regulation become problematic. We can hold a soldier to account for misusing a gun – we cannot do the same for a  machine. For one thing, they do not know, and cannot experience the concept of human death, so how can we even hold them to the same level of accountability when they cannot even understand the framework on which modern human ethics is built?   

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 


Recently, I read Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature. In it he considers why violence has declined over centuries. One part of it looks at weapons of mass destruction. For Pinker, the main reason chemical, biological and nuclear weapons are not used regularly is not because of international law concerns around high levels of collateral damage, but more because it would break a taboo on using them. Pinker suggests that the taboo is so powerful that using weapons of mass destruction are not even in the minds of military planners when considering war plans. Autonomous weapons have the potential to be as impactful as weapons of mass destruction, but without the horrendous collateral damage concerns. Would this create an equal taboo based on the human unease at delegating lethal decision-making? I think a taboo would be created, but the likely reducing in collateral damage would make any taboo weaker. Therefore taboo is unlikely to restrict any future use of autonomous weapons. 

In terms of treaty-based regulation, having been at the meetings of experts on lethal autonomous weapon systems at the UN, I think any meaningful ban on these weapons is unlikely. However, in recent years a number of informal expert manuals have been created on air and missile warfare, naval warfare, and cyber warfare. They have generally been well received, and their recommendations followed. I could imagine a situation in the future where similar ‘road rules’ are developed for autonomous weapons, interpreting the requirements of the law of armed conflict and international human rights law for such systems. This could result in more detailed regulation, as there is less watering down of provisions by states who want to score political points rather than progress talks. We will have to wait and see if this will happen. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University 


Let us know what you think

One thought on “Do previous instances of weapons regulation offer any useful concepts for governing lethal autonomous weapon systems?

  1. Hi Joshua and Mike. I agree with your comments above. I have doubts that a preemptive prohibition on or regulation of autonomous weapons by means of an additional protocol within the CCW framework will be forthcoming. First, unlike GGEs that eventually resulted in Protocols IV and V, the GGE mandate in respect of autonomous weapons does not include any reference to negotiating a prohibition or regulatory instrument. Second, the GGE discussions at the moment seem to be little more than a continuation of the informal meetings of previous years – ie a circular effort to construct a meaningful definition of what an autonomous weapon actually is, being mired down in discussions of what constitutes full autonomy. I think the CCW really needs to up its game, otherwise doubts as to its consensus-building processes may eventually lead to efforts to prohibit or regulate autonomous weapons systems outside the CCW framework, as was the case with land mines and cluster munitions – the 1997 and 2008 treaties were both concluded outside the CCW framework because of inability to work through the CCW processes.
    I agree fully with what Joshua says above regarding recent expert manuals in aerial and missile warfare, naval warfare and cyber warfare. I would also imagine a situation where a similar kind of “soft-regulation” could be devised in respect of autonomous weapons, I think this is the best that can be hoped for in the foreseeable future.
    Hope you are all keeping warm!
    All best

    Liked by 1 person

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