UN to debate lethal autonomous weapons issue

The development of lethal autonomous weapons is sending shivers down the spine, and the United Nations will tackle the issue head-on at a major conference on the subject.

Whether in the world of work or in the world of entertainment, technology is revolutionizing our daily way of life. And of course, the defense sector is no exception; from combat drones to military satellites to autonomous artillery, the announced arrival of new systems based on artificial intelligence leaves the door open to a host of absolutely terrifying scenarios. After more than eight years of procrastination, the United Nations will now try to decide on this issue at a convention that started today in Geneva.

On the menu: a debate on Autonomous Lethal Weapons (ALE). This denomination encompasses all machines potentially capable of taking life without a human being involved at any level in the decision-making process. And it promises to be stormy to say the least, as participants have very different opinions on this crucial question.

Several diametrically opposed views of the problem

According to Reuters, Austria, for example, is one of the countries campaigning for a total and absolute ban of all FTAs. Others, on the other hand, explain that these technologies have many advantages; they explain, for example, that they are much more precise than humans when it comes to hitting the right target. As might be expected, the United States, which already has a sizeable fleet of combat drones, has made it clear that it is on that side. The same goes for Russia and China.

However, this positioning could come back to haunt them. Because according to Max Tegmark, an AI researcher and co-founder of the Institute for the Future of Life interviewed by TNW, it is not the great powers that these systems will benefit the most. These technologies will one day be “small, inexpensive, and light as a smartphone, yet incredibly versatile and powerful”; the ideal combination to seduce opponents with limited means. “If we can buy a killer robot for the price of an AK-K7”, As will soon be the case according to Tegmark, it is the door open to their acquisition by isolated criminals, cartels, or even global terrorist organizations.

From a strictly technological point of view, certain devices such as the American Reaper combat drone (“reaper”) already embed the technology necessary to strike independently. © US Air Force / Paul Ridgeway

An emergency for all mankind

If there is one point on which everyone agrees, it is that there is an urgent need to put in place a clear and comprehensive legal framework. Indeed, UN experts said last March that autonomous combat drones could already do their job in Libya. And this is the whole point of the problem; technology is advancing at breakneck speed today, to such an extent that the legislature can no longer keep pace.

We see this phenomenon in many phenomena such as electric vehicles, but it is in the military sector that the consequences could be the most important. Indeed, these are crucial questions that require to be approached with caution, because any hasty decision could give rise to catastrophic precedents on the human and diplomatic level. But even if everyone is aware of the issues, that does not mean that the debate will be appeased. At present, participants even seem very far from finding common ground, since a possible treaty would have to be adopted unanimously.

There is not enough support to launch a treaty at this stage”, Regrets a diplomat interviewed by Reuters.We hope we can at least agree on some principles to apply nationally.”, He explains. It therefore seems unlikely that an agreement will be reached in the near future. But the debate will inevitably return to the table in the months and years to come. Let us therefore hope that this conference will lay the foundations for a constructive discussion, and that the states involved will not indulge in an ostrich policy fraught with consequences.

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