Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The danger of exempting “autonomous” weapons from a ban by calling them “semi-autonomous”

Mark Gubrud is a physicist with an interest in stopping a new robotic arms race to create powerful weapons that operate outside of human control.  

In a recent e-mail to him, I mentioned that not everyone would be likely to accept his argument that Lockheed Martin’s Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) was in fact the kind of “lethal autonomous weapons system” (LAWS) to be discussed and possibly recommended for regulation or a ban by the informal Meeting of Experts being convened by the United Nations in Geneva on April 13th – 17th, as part of an updating of the UN Convention on Certain Conventional (i.e., non-nuclear) Weapons.

Gubrud responded:

 “I think the "other players" who "will refuse to acknowledge" the issues I've raised about the lack of any clear line between "semi-autonomous" and "autonomous" weapons, as defined by the Pentagon, are just those who either don't want any effective arms control (people like Paul Scharre and Michael Horowitz, and those currently in control of US policy), or else do want to "stop killer robots" but are afraid to engage the complexities of the issue, finding it more convenient to pretend this is all about things that lie in the future and that everyone can recognize as "killer robots."

“The latter approach will fail, of course, because meanwhile we are developing actually autonomous weapons of increasing sophistication making increasingly complex decisions fully autonomously, and if we keep pretending these are not the "fully autonomous weapons" we're worried about, we'll eventually get to a point where we won't know how to define that distinction and everyone will say "it's too late" to stop an arms race that will already be in full charge.

“In reality, the autonomous arms race is already underway, and it consists almost entirely of things that fit under 3000.09's definition of "semi-autonomous." So, if you want to stop this, that is where you have to direct your attention.”

Left out entirely so far in this discussion is the UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike) system, whose developmental direction is uncertain as the Pentagon, Congressional leaders, and defense contractors very non-transparently try to reach agreement on what features to include in the RFP for building this aircraft that will go out to Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and General Atomics, all of whom would like the multi-billion dollar contract for the system.

More information about the UCLASS debate can be found on the Facebook page of UCLASS Watch, here.

The UCLASS system is, in effect, an unmanned fighter jet, capable of autonomous operation and no doubt capable, should its developers choose to make it so, of autonomously selecting and engaging hostile targets without effective human intervention, even if the Pentagon insists on saying that, like the LRASM, UCLASS is only “semi-autonomous” and therefore cannot be regulated or prohibited under the terms of any agreement designed to stop an arms race in “autonomous” weapons.

Lockheed Martin has so far declined to respond to an Etopia News inquiry as to whether or not it considers the LRASM to be “autonomous.”  No effort has yet been made to get the views of the defense contractors who want to build the UCLASS about whether or not this system is “autonomous” either.  Keep reading this Etopia News blog for further updates.

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