Lethal autonomous weapons (LAWs) are a type of autonomous military robot that can independently search and engage targets based on programmed constraints and descriptions. LAW are also called lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS), lethal autonomous robots (LAR), robotic weapons, or killer robots. LAWs may operate in the air, on land, on water, under water, or in space. The autonomy of current systems as of 2018[update] is restricted in the sense that a human gives the final command to attack - though there are exceptions with certain "defensive" systems.
- 1 Being autonomous as weapon
- 2 Automatic defensive systems
- 3 Autonomous offensive systems
- 4 Ethical and legal issues
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 Further reading
Being autonomous as weapon
Being "autonomous" has different meanings in different fields of study. In engineering it may refer to the machine's ability to operate without human involvement. In philosophy it may refer to an individual being morally independent. In political science it may refer to an area's capability of self-governing. In terms of military weapon development, the identification of a weapon as autonomous is not as clear as in other areas. The specific standard entailed in the concept of being autonomous can vary hugely between different scholars, nations and organizations.
Various people have many definitions of what constitutes a lethal autonomous weapon. However, Heather Roff, a writer for Case Western Reserve University School of Law, describes autonomous weapon systems as "armed weapons systems, capable of learning and adapting their 'functioning in response to changing circumstances in the environment in which [they are] deployed,' as well as capable of making firing decisions on their own." This definition of autonomous weapon systems is a fairly high threshold compared to the definitions of scholars such as Peter Asaro and Mark Gubrud's definitions seen below.
Scholars like Peter Asaro and Mark Gubrud are trying to set the threshold lower and judge more weapon systems as autonomous. They believe that any weapon system that is capable of releasing a lethal force without the operation, decision or confirmation of a human supervisor can be deemed as autonomous. According to Gubrud, A weapon system operating partially or wholly without human intervention is considered autonomous. He argues that a weapon system does not need to be able to make decisions completely by itself in order to be called autonomous. Instead, it should be treated as autonomous as long as it actively involves in one or multiple parts of the "preparation process", from finding the target to finally firing.
Other organizations, however, are setting the standard of autonomous weapon system in a higher position. The Ministry of Defence (United Kingdom) defines autonomous weapon systems as "systems that are capable of understanding higher level intent and direction. From this understanding and its perception of its environment, such a system is able to take appropriate action to bring about a desired state. It is capable of deciding a course of action, from a number of alternatives, without depending on human oversight and control - such human engagement with the system may still be present, though. While the overall activity of an autonomous unmanned aircraft will be predictable, individual actions may not be."
As a result, the composition of treaty between states requires a commonly accepted labeling of what exactly constitutes an autonomous weapon.
Automatic defensive systems
The oldest automatically-triggered lethal weapon is the land mine, used since at least the 1600s, and naval mines, used since at least the 1700s. Anti-personnel mines are banned in many countries by the 1997 Ottawa Treaty, not including the United States, Russia, and much of Asia and the Middle East.
Some current examples of LAWs are automated "hardkill" active protection systems, such as a radar-guided CIWS systems used to defend ships that have been in use since the 1970s (e.g. the US Phalanx CIWS). Such systems can autonomously identify and attack oncoming missiles, rockets, artillery fire, aircraft and surface vessels according to criteria set by the human operator. Similar systems exist for tanks, such as the Russian Arena, the Israeli Trophy, and the German AMAP-ADS. Several types of stationary sentry guns, which can fire at humans and vehicles, are used in South Korea and Israel. Many missile defense systems, such as Iron Dome, also have autonomous targeting capabilities. Automatic turrets installed on military vehicles are called remote weapon stations.
The main reason for not having a "human in the loop" in these systems is the need for rapid response. They have generally been used to protect personnel and installations against incoming projectiles.
Autonomous offensive systems
Systems with a higher degree of autonomy would include drones or unmanned combat aerial vehicles, e.g.: "The unarmed BAE Systems Taranis jet-propelled combat drone prototype may lead to a Future Combat Air System that can autonomously search, identify and locate enemies but can only engage with a target when authorized by mission command. It can also defend itself against enemy aircraft" (Heyns 2013, §45). The Northrop Grumman X-47B drone can take off and land on aircraft carriers (demonstrated in 2014); it is set to be developed into an Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) system.
According to The Economist, as technology advances, future applications of unmanned undersea vehicles might include mine clearance, mine-laying, anti-submarine sensor networking in contested waters, patrolling with active sonar, resupplying manned submarines, and becoming low-cost missile platforms. In 2018 the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review alleged that Russia is developing a "new intercontinental, nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered, undersea autonomous torpedo" named "Status 6".
In 2018 Chinese scientists told the South China Morning Post that China is developing large autonomous submarines suitable for reconnaissance, mine placement, and "suicide attacks" against enemy vessels, slated for deployment in the early 2020s.
In October 2018, Zeng Yi, a senior executive at Chinese Defense Firm Norinco, gave a speech in which he said that “In future battlegrounds, there will be no people fighting,” and that the use of lethal autonomous weapons in warfare is "inevitable."
British Army deployed new unmanned vehicles and military robots in 2019.
Ethical and legal issues
Standard used in US Policy
Current US policy states: "Autonomous … weapons systems shall be designed to allow commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of force." However, the policy requires that autonomous weapon systems that kill people or use kinetic force, selecting and engaging targets without further human intervention, be certified as compliant with "appropriate levels" and other standards, not that such weapon systems cannot meet these standards and are therefore forbidden. "Semi-autonomous" hunter-killers that autonomously identify and attack targets do not even require certification. Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said in 2016 that the Defense Department would "not delegate lethal authority to a machine to make a decision", but might need to reconsider this since "authoritarian regimes" may do so. In October 2016 President Barack Obama stated that early in his career he was wary of a future in which a US president making use of drone warfare could "carry on perpetual wars all over the world, and a lot of them covert, without any accountability or democratic debate".
Probable violations of ethics and international acts
Stuart Russell, professor of computer science from University of California, Berkeley stated the concern he has with LAWS is that it is unethical and inhumane. The main issue with this system is it is hard to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants.
There is concern (e.g. Sharkey 2012) about whether LAWs would violate International Humanitarian Law, especially the principle of distinction, which requires the ability to discriminate combatants from non-combatants, and the principle of proportionality, which requires that damage to civilians is proportional to the military aim. This concern is often invoked as a reason to ban "killer robots" altogether - but it is doubtful that this concern can be an argument against LAWs that do not violate International Humanitarian Law.
Campaigns on banning LAWs
The possibility of LAWs has generated significant debate, especially about the risk of "killer robots" roaming the earth - in the near or far future. The group Campaign to Stop Killer Robots formed in 2013. In July 2015, over 1,000 experts in artificial intelligence signed a letter warning of the threat of an arms race in military artificial intelligence and calling for a ban on autonomous weapons. The letter was presented in Buenos Aires at the 24th International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI-15) and was co-signed by Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak, Noam Chomsky, Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn and Google DeepMind co-founder Demis Hassabis, among others.
According to PAX fully automated weapons (FAWs) will lower the threshold of going to war as soldiers are removed from the battlefield and the public is distanced from experiencing war, giving politicians and other decision-makers more space in deciding when and how to go to war. They warn that once deployed, FAWs will make democratic control of war more difficult - something that author of Kill Decision - a novel on the topic - and IT specialist Daniel Suarez also warned about: according to him it might recentralize power into very few hands by requiring very few people to go to war.
There are websites protesting the development of LAWs by presenting a possible future that scares the viewers if such researches on applying artificial intelligence on designation of weapons continues. On these websites, news about ethical and legal issues are constantly updated for visitors to recap with recent news about international meetings and research articles concerning LAWs.
The Holy See has called for the international community to ban the use of LAWS on several occasions. In November of 2018, Archbishop Ivan Jurkovic, the permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, stated that “In order to prevent an arms race and the increase of inequalities and instability, it is an imperative duty to act promptly: now is the time to prevent LAWS from becoming the reality of tomorrow’s warfare.” The Church worries that these weapons systems have the capability to irreversibly alter the nature of warfare, create detachment from human agency and put in question the humanity of societies.
As of 29 March 2019[update], the majority of governments represented at a UN meeting to discuss the matter favoured a ban on LAWS. A minority of governments, including those of Australia, Israel, Russia, the UK, and the US, opposed a ban.
No Ban, But Regulation
A third approach focuses on regulating the use of autonomous weapon systems in lieu of a ban. 
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- Müller, Vincent C. (2016), ‘Autonomous killer robots are probably good news’, in Ezio Di Nucci and Filippo Santoni de Sio (eds.), Drones and responsibility: Legal, philosophical and socio-technical perspectives on the use of remotely controlled weapons, 67-81 (London: Ashgate).
- Stuart Russell's campaign against LAWs
- Sharkey, Noel E (2012), ‘Automating Warfare: lessons learned from the drones’, Journal of Law, Information & Science, 21 (2).
- Simpson, Thomas W and Müller, Vincent C. (2016), ‘Just war and robots’ killings’, The Philosophical Quarterly 66 (263), 302-22.
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- US Department of Defense (2012), ‘Directive 3000.09, Autonomy in weapon systems’. <2014 Killer Robots Policy Paper Final.docx>.
- US Department of Defense (2013), ‘Unmanned Systems Integrated Road Map FY2013-2038’. <http://www.defense.gov/pubs/DOD-USRM-2013.pdf%3E.
- The Ethics of Autonomous Weapons Systems (2014) Seminar at UPenn <https://www.law.upenn.edu/institutes/cerl/conferences/ethicsofweapons/schedule-required-readings.php>