A common claim about autonomous weapons in the media, and amongst pundits, is that autonomous systems would not suffer human emotions and would not therefore undertake the atrocities that are driven by these emotions in conflict. A new discussion paper by Prof. James Dawes, Director of the Program in Human Rights and Humanitarianism at Macalester College, tackles these claims along three key lines:
  • Atrocities are generally the result of systems, not personalities – and AI and machines are as much a product of systems as any individual soldier. 
  • Autonomous weapons systems magnify and extend the capacity of human actors to do harm, and so they extend the capacity of ‘bad actors’ also.
  • The architecture of autonomous systems intended to target people reproduces the dehumanization of others which is a principal precursor to atrocity. 
Prof. Dawes has written specifically about war crimes and the people that commit war crimes. These arguments suggest that the proponents of autonomous weapons as a solution to war crimes have often done little to understand what often lies behind those crimes. They also lose sight of the fact that these machines are still going to be programmed and instructed by people (even at the sci-fi level that these arguments for autonomous weapons tend to operate.) The final line of argument notes that by contrast, allowing machines to target people, or to target certain groups of people, relies on the sort of dehumanization that often enables war crimes in the first place.
It is interesting, these days, that claims of autonomous weapons as being morally superior to people have pretty much disappeared from the professional policy and legal debate in the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons. We rarely now hear diplomats claiming that “robots will not rape women“. This is indicative of the positive, practical and realistic direction that the international discussion has gone in at the multilateral level. However, these claims are still recycled in some of the punditry and grey literature that accumulates around this issue. It would be to all of our benefits for these lines of argument to be retired.

Download publication here.