Robotics expert helps global leaders decide ‘killer robots’ policies

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• Robotics expert invited to UN to debate pros and cons of autonomous weapons

• Nations to consider questions relating to the technical, ethical, legal and military/operational issues of ‘killer robots'

• Governments meeting for the first time to discuss the use of fully autonomous weapons systems

One of the world’s leading robotics experts is heading to the United Nations this week to help global leaders understand the pros and cons of lethal autonomous weapons systems. 

Professor Noel Sharkey from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Computer Science is holding a debate with Professor Ronald Arkin from the Georgia Institute of Technology at the UN’s Convention of Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva to explore the growing global concern over the dangers of ‘killer robots'. Professor Noel Sharkey from the University of Sheffield's Department of Computer Science

During recent years, a number of leading robotics experts, international aid agencies and governments have become increasingly concerned about the dangers posed by lethal autonomous weapons systems amid the growing technological advances being made in the field.

As a result of these concerns, an international campaign has started to stop the development of ‘killer robots’ which can be used to identify and attack a target without human intervention.

Professor Sharkey, who is a world renowned expert in robotics and artificial intelligence at the University of Sheffield, said: “We are a group of concerned academics who have been pushing for international discussion on this issue for the last 5 years.

“We launched a campaign from the House of Commons last year calling for a new international treaty to be developed to prohibit these weapons systems. Although fully autonomous weapons are not in operation yet, a number of states are well underway in research, development and testing of related technologies. Weapons with greater levels of autonomy are already starting to be put in action.”

During a UN meeting last year, a new mandate on lethal autonomous weapons systems was agreed. The mandate instructed the organisation of this week’s ‘Meeting of Experts’ to discuss the questions related to emerging technologies in this field, marking the first time governments are holding dedicated discussions on the issue.

Following the meeting, a report will be submitted to member states to objectively reflect on the discussions held.

“If we do not put an end to this trend for automating warfare now, we could face a very bleak future where machines are delegated with the decision to kill humans. This is perhaps the ultimate human indignity and crosses a fundamental moral line which needs to be considered and addressed,” Professor Sharkey added.

The first round of discussions will take place in Geneva from 13-16 May 2014. Governments, civil society, international organisations and other experts, will discuss technical, ethical, legal and military/operational issues around autonomous weapons systems. A decision on next steps will be taken at the annual meeting of the Convention on Conventional Weapons at the UN in November 2014.

Additional information

The University of Sheffield

With almost 25,000 of the brightest students from around 120 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

In 2011 it was named University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards and in the last decade has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.

Sheffield has five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

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