The Killer Robots Are Here: Legal and Policy Implications

79 Pages Posted: 8 Dec 2014 Last revised: 5 Aug 2015

See all articles by Rebecca Crootof

Rebecca Crootof

University of Richmond School of Law; Yale University - Yale Information Society Project

Date Written: December 5, 2014


In little over a year, the possibility of a complete ban on autonomous weapon systems — known colloquially as “killer robots” — has evolved from a proposal in an NGO report to the subject of an international meeting with representatives from over eighty states. However, no one has yet put forward a coherent definition of autonomy in weapon systems from a law of armed conflict perspective, which often results in the conflation of legal, ethical, policy, and political arguments. To address this problem and to assist future treaty negotiators, this Article proposes that an “autonomous weapon system” be defined as “a weapon system that, based on conclusions derived from gathered information and preprogrammed constraints, is capable of independently selecting and engaging targets.”

Applying this definition, and contrary to the nearly universal consensus, it quickly becomes apparent that autonomous weapon systems are not weapons of the future: they exist and have already been integrated into states’ armed forces. The fact that such weaponry is currently being used with little critique has a number of profound implications. First, it undermines pro-ban arguments based on the premise that autonomous weapon systems are inherently unlawful. Second, it significantly reduces the likelihood that a complete ban would be successful, as states will be unwilling to voluntarily relinquish otherwise lawful and uniquely effective weaponry.

But law is not doomed to follow technology: if used proactively, law can channel the development and use of autonomous weapon systems. The Article concludes that intentional international regulation is needed, now, and suggests how such regulation may be designed to incorporate beneficial legal limitations and humanitarian protections.

Keywords: law of war, law of armed conflict, international humanitarian law, IHL, human rights, robot, autonomous weapon system, autonomous lethal weapon, automation, autonomy, machine learning, artificial intelligence, weapons review, Article 36, ban

Suggested Citation

Crootof, Rebecca, The Killer Robots Are Here: Legal and Policy Implications (December 5, 2014). 36 Cardozo L. Rev. 1837 (2015), Available at SSRN:

Rebecca Crootof (Contact Author)

University of Richmond School of Law ( email )

28 Westhampton Way
Richmond, VA 23173
United States

Yale University - Yale Information Society Project ( email )

127 Wall Street
New Haven, CT 06511
United States

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