The UK is at risk of sleepwalking into a future of self-aware autonomous robots and drones capable of killing without human intervention, claims pressure group Article 36, which launched its 'Stop Killer Robots' campaign this week.
Although the UK is not on par with the US's use of controversial unmanned aerial vehicles - UAVs or drones - the Article 36 pressure group wants Whitehall to clarify its position on automated weapons and to say categorically that it will not invest in the development of autonomous weapons.
Such automated weapons are already used in the battlefield, and are known as "human-in-the-loop" systems because they will not engage a target with lethal force without being given a human command. Article 36 is worried that fully autonomous "human-out-of-the-loop" weapons systems could be developed in the near future.
"We are seeing a slide towards greater autonomy of weapons. Moving towards full autonomy on the battlefield, where the power is given to a machine to decide who lives or dies, crosses a fundamental moral line, " said Thomas Nash, director of Article 36.
"The UK says it will always keep human control over weapons and this is an important commitment. But unless they tell us what that means, we are at risk of sleepwalking into an acceptance of fully autonomous weapons," said Nash. "The government needs to set out a watertight policy requiring meaningful human control over every individual attack."
According to Article 36, the UK's policy on self-thinking weapons is ambiguous and can be open to interpretation.
Such "killer robots" have already been discussed in parliament and the UK's approach to them has been outlined in a note by the Ministry of Defence, but the country does not yet have what Article 36 calls a comprehensive policy on autonomous weapons.
Campaign leader Jody Williams, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her work in bringing a ban on anti-personnel landmines, told the BBC: "As people learn about our campaign, they will flock to it. The public conscience is horrified to learn about this possible advance in weapons systems. People don't wan't killer robots out there. Normal human beings find it repulsive."
Under human control
The UK has stated: "The operation of weapons systems will always be under human control. No planned offensive systems are to have the capability to prosecute targets without involving a human."
But the group wants a clearer definition of "human control", which the government has said it will require in relation to drones and other such weapons. But the group claims this could mean a human would merely give orders to deploy a system, which would then be able to think for itself, selecting and engaging with targets without human control.
"The UK government says there will always be human control over weapons and existing international law is adequate. The UK MoD doctrine says fully autonomous weapons could be legal. This divergence is why clearer rules are needed." said Richard Moyes, managing partner of Article 36. "We need a commitment to meaningful human control over individual attacks. It doesn't seem a lot to ask."
Going forward, Article 36 is calling for a "pre-emptive and comprehensive" ban on the development, production and use of fully autonomous weapons. The group believes this can be achieved through an international treaty, as well as through national laws tailored for individual countries.