The Roboticization of Warfare with Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (Laws): Mandate of Humanity or Threat to It?

By Mull, Nicholas W. | Houston Journal of International Law, Spring 2018 | Go to article overview

The Roboticization of Warfare with Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (Laws): Mandate of Humanity or Threat to It?


Mull, Nicholas W., Houston Journal of International Law


  I. INTRODUCTION   II. BACKGROUND       A. Historical Development of Weapons Law       B. LAWS Defined and Contemporary Examples of          Autonomy in Weapon Systems          1. Definition of LAWS and Taxonomy of             Autonomy          2. Current Weapon Systems with Autonomous             Features      C. Contemporary Efforts in the LAWS Debate III. ANALYSIS      A. Legal Reviews of New Weapons and Weapon         Systems         1. Military Necessity         2. Unnecessary Suffering         3. Distinction      B. Proportionality      C. The Responsibility Gap: Fact or Fiction?      D. Threshold to Resort to Force      E. Martens Clause and Related Concerns of Honor,         Ethics, and Morality         1. Martens Clause         2. Honor         3. Ethics         4. Morality  IV. CONCLUDING REMARKS 

I. INTRODUCTION

"It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity."

Albert Einstein (1)

Whether Einstein was correct is certainly debatable amongst reasonable minds, but regardless of its truth, especially in an era where at one extreme intellectual debate has been reduced to 140-character quips on Twitter regarding matters of life and death to the other where persons a world away can bear live witness on YouTube to atrocities in warfare, we owe it to our species to always question whether emerging technology serves as a point of evolution or de-evolution. Is it bringing us closer as humanity? Or, is it further increasing the emotional, moral, and psychological distance between individuals and societies? The answers to these questions are of great significance to the progression of human civilization. They may shape the formation of new laws and policies or, as will be discussed later, may form the basis for determining the existence of legal rules of a natural law variant through the application of foundational principles.

While these questions are of general applicability, this paper will focus on the most contentious issue in emerging weapons technology today: lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS). Although definitions are varied, LAWS are weapon systems that are capable--at a base minimum--of detecting, identifying, selecting, and lethally engaging human targets in war without direct human supervision or control. (2)

Like debates over submarines and military aviation a century ago, this new debate has been highly contentious. (3) Some of the arguments made against using submarines and aircraft in warfare--such as those based in martial honor, or the intuitive moral dilemma of killing in combat with little to no physical risk--are now being made with respect to LAWS. (4) Other arguments are informed by the vast development of human rights law and a deeper understanding of the dignity of the person and concept of humanity within the realm of law. These arguments include, for example, the need to maintain moral agency over life and death decisions. (5)

A disappointment in the debate thus far has been the highly partisan literature from lawyers in the field that does not seek to discover the current status of the law but merely puts forth circular arguments to fulfill their predetermined conclusions of the law.

By no means is it the only example, but a spearhead in the movement to pre-emptively ban LAWS has been Human Rights Watch (HRW), which founded a campaign to stop the "Killer Robots." (6) Even the language that is used in many of these arguments is unnecessarily hyperbolic, seeking to invoke Hollywood science-fiction images of the post-apocalyptic world of the Terminator franchise where the machines took over the world. In its 2012 report, Losing Humanity: The Case Against "Killer Robots,"HRW noted that "killer robots" could be developed within 20-30 years and began its argument with a premise that "Hull autonomy would strip civilians of protections from the effects of war that are guaranteed under the law. …

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