The Role of the United Nations in Addressing Emerging Technologies in the Area of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems.

AuthorGill, Amandeep Singh

History is witness that technology creates surprises on the battlefield. However, technology can blindside not only warriors but policymakers as well, lhe challenge of keeping pace with technology becomes even more formidable when policy is co-constructed in multilateral forums, which by their very nature require the patient build-up of common ground and consensus.

In recent years, technological fields have begun to merge and create new use scenarios in both the civil and military domains. A case in point is the formerly esoteric field of artificial intelligence (AI). Increased availability of computing power, the massive data generated by Internet-connected devices, and falling costs for data storage and manipulation have brought AI out of obscure conferences into newspaper headlines and the speeches of leaders. Techniques such as machine learning combined with the availability of large data sets and computing power to "train" AI algorithms have led to machines taking on tasks once reserved for the human brain. The defeat of the 18-time world champion in Go, Lee Sedol, by DeepMind's AI algorithm in March 2016, is a powerful symbol of this shift in the balance of power between man and machine. It was only natural that these advances in the intelligent autonomy of digital systems would attract the attention of Governments, scientists and civil society concerned about the possible deployment and use of lethal autonomous weapons. What was needed was a forum to discuss these concerns and begin to construct common understandings regarding possible solutions.

Conventional weapons-related arms control tended to play second fiddle to strategic weaponry during the cold war. This imbalance persisted, even though technology and security trends began to shift in the late 1990s. The multilateral ecosystem for dealing with advanced conventional weaponry outside of ad hoc export control regimes--such as the 1996 Wassenaar Arrangement--remained relatively underdeveloped. Fortunately, one instrument at the juncture of international humanitarian law (IHL) and arms control stands out. This is the Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects (CCW). (1)

The Convention, negotiated under United Nations auspices in 1979-1980, has its roots in key IHL principles, such as proportionality and distinction between civilians and combatants. Currently, the Convention has five Protocols--Protocol I on Non-Detectable Fragments; Protocol II on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Mines, Booby-Traps and Other Devices (as amended on 3 May 1996); Protocol III on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use...

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