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Autonomous Weapons Systems

The Autonomous Weapons Systems – Law, Ethics, Policy Project is a research project coordinated by Professor Nehal Bhuta, AEL Co-Director and co-financed by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation. Project partners are: Professor Susanne Beck (University of Hannover), Professor Claus Kress (University of Cologne), Professor Robin Geiß (University of Glasgow) and Dr. Hin Yan Liu (EUI).

The project’s main objective is to address the profound and complex challenges presented by automated weapons systems (AWS).

Fully autonomous weapons systems do not yet exist. But a range of existing and emerging military technologies are increasingly alienating the human being from the lethal decision-making process. These systems are reportedly capable of conducting attacks and defending themselves from attack without the need for a pilot, but will not engage targets without the authorisation of a human operator. These systems are pushing the limits of automation.

The recent debate concerning the legality of AWS demonstrates that most, if not all, aspects of the debate remain embryonic. Numerous technological, legal and ethical questions remain unformulated, not to mention unanswered. Important claims in the debates, concerning the meaning of autonomy, the technological frontiers of robotics, the dependence of certain International Humanitarian Law (IHL) rules on human judgment, and the categorical question of whether we should ever delegate to non-humans the decision to kill humans, remain underdeveloped.

For this reason, deeper, more multidisciplinary and more systematic scholarly inquiry is needed to address this emerging problem. The Autonomous Weapons Systems Project is structured around the questions and sub-questions embedded within 4 key themes:

  1. The meaning of autonomy in robotics and the frontiers of technological development that will impact on weapons technology. What is the state of the art, and how will developments in the field affect the nature of human decision-making in weapons systems?
  2. The legal and philosophical significance of human judgment in lethal decisions. Is there something intrinsically wrong with delegating a decision to kill humans to a machine? Should some areas of human life be “off-limits” to robotic decision-making? What does a claim about the limits set by “human dignity” mean in such contexts?
  3. IHL and Autonomous Weapons Systems. Can autonomous weapons systems comply with international humanitarian law? What are the legal implications of “riskless warfare” where non-human agents are the principal fighters? Do AWS somehow undercut the fundamental equilibrium underlying the structure of IHL?
  4. Legal responsibility for autonomous weapons systems, collective and individual. What is an appropriate framework of responsibility for AWS? What legal responsibilities do or should states bear when developing and deploying autonomous weapons? What kinds of frameworks for accountability and management of the risks entailed in such weaponry are appropriate at the inter-state level? What kinds of individual accountability frameworks can be applied, or developed?

A conference was held at the EUI on 24-25 April 2014, and brought together a group of experts to inaugurate this important research agenda.

In 2016, Autonomous Weapons Systems: Law, Ethics, Policy, edited by Nehal Bhuta, Susanne Beck, Robin Geiß, Hin-Yan Liu and Claus Kress was published (Cambridge University Press).

Page last updated on 22 March 2021

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