Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.


UN talks take aim at 'killer robots'

14 May 2014, 14:17

Geneva - Armies of Terminator-like warriors fan out across the battlefield, destroying everything in their path, as swarms of fellow robots rain fire from the skies.

That dark vision could all too easily shift from science fiction to fact unless such weapons are banned before they leap from the drawing board to the arsenal, campaigners warn.

On Tuesday, governments began the first-ever talks exclusively on so-called "lethal autonomous weapons systems" - opponents prefer the label "killer robots".

"All too often international law only responds to atrocities and suffering once it has happened," said Michael Moeller, head of the UN Conference on Disarmament.

"You have the opportunity to take pre-emptive action and ensure that the ultimate decision to end life remains firmly under human control," he told the meeting in Geneva.

Deployed automated weapons

That was echoed by the International Committee of the Red Cross, guardian of the Geneva Conventions on warfare.

"There is a sense of deep discomfort with the idea of allowing machines to make life-and-death decisions on the battlefield with little or no human involvement," said Kathleen Lawand, head of its arms unit.

The four-day meeting aims to pave the way for more in-depth talks in November.

"The only answer is a pre-emptive ban," said Human Rights Watch arms expert Steve Goose.

UN-brokered talks have done that before: Blinding laser weapons were banned in 1998, before they ever hit the battlefield.

Automated weapons are already deployed worldwide.

The best-known are drones, unmanned aircraft whose human controllers push the trigger from a distant base. Controversy rages, especially over the civilian collateral damage caused when the US strikes alleged Islamist militants.

Perhaps closest to the Terminator of Arnold Schwarzenegger's action films is a Samsung sentry robot used in South Korea, able to spot unusual activity, quiz intruders and, when authorised by a controller, shoot them.

Human control

Other countries in the research vanguard include Britain, Israel, China, Russia and Taiwan.

But it is the next step, the power to kill without a human handler, that rattles opponents the most.

Experts predict that military research could produce such machines within 20 years.

"Lethal autonomous weapons systems are rightly described as the next revolution in military technology, on par with the introduction of gunpowder and nuclear weapons," said Pakistan's UN ambassador Zamir Akram, warning that they would threaten world peace and security.

German ambassador Michael Biontino said human control was the bedrock of international law.

"Even in times of war, human beings cannot be made simple objects of machine action," he said.

The goal, diplomats said, is not to ban the technology outright.

"We need to keep in mind that these are dual technologies and could have numerous civilian, peaceful and legitimate uses. This must not be about restricting research in this field," said French ambassador Jean-Hugues Simon-Michel, chair of the talks.

Life-saving potential

Robots can potentially be used in fire-fighting and bomb disposal, while robot vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers are already common.

"We believe that such technology is not only useful, but also contributes to a safe and sound life for us all," said Japan's ambassador Toshio Sano.

Campaigner Noel Sharkey, emeritus professor of robotics and artificial intelligence at Britain's University of Sheffield, said autonomy itself is not the problem.

"There is just one thing that we don't want, and that's what we call the kill function," he said.

One aim is to start sketching out the definition of a robot weapon.

US delegate Stephen Townley said the Terminator image was misleading.

"That is a far cry from what we should be focusing on, which is the likely trajectory of technological development, not images from popular culture," he said.

"The United States believes it is premature to determine where these discussions might or should lead," he added.

In 2012, Washington imposed a 10-year human control requirement on automated weapons, welcomed by campaigners even though they said it should go further.

Supporters of automated weapons say they have life-saving potential in warfare, for example being able to get closer than troops to assess a threat properly, without letting emotion cloud decision-making.

But that is precisely what worries critics.

"If we don't inject a moral and ethical discussion into this, we won't control warfare," said Jody Williams, who won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for her campaign for a treaty banning landmines.


Tags un robotics

Read News24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Read more from our Users

Nigeria @ 56: Words to my green f...

A leader’s job is not to dictate, but rather to be respected, admired and be a trustee, of the land we love, with so much potential, a land which should be freer than free. Its still a long way to fufilling our destiny! Read more...

Submitted by
Isaac Asabor263
Recession: An opportunity for Nig...

The recession should be seen as an opportunity for the country’s promotion as long as we all collectively conduct ourselves in a patriotic manner, writes Isaac Asabor.  Read more...

Submitted by
Black and White

We want to imitate the whites in everything because we are ignorant of our inherent originality and content. We spend all our Naira to acquire his inventions because we so oblivious of our natural endowments that we allow him have it for free. Read more...

Submitted by
Nate Nat
Adamawa State University Mubi: A ...

ADSU integrity forum has accused the Sunday Joshua Wugira, a lawyer, of adopting unorthodox tactics by abusing his privilege by attacking the integrity of ADSU Vice Chancellor Dr. Moses Zira Zaruwa, writes a News24 reader. Read more...

Submitted by
Abdulsalam Jubril
My Country Nigeria (Part One)

Poetry by Abdulsalam Jubril.

Submitted by
Abdulsalam Jubril
Recession, dearth in leadership a...

Every leader has the opportunity to become great and making himself immortal in the lives and hearts of people for generations to come. Will Mr. President seize this opportunity?, questions Abdulsalam Jubril. Read more...