False Rubicons, Moral Panic & Conceptual Cul-De-Sacs: Critiquing & Reframing the Call to Ban Lethal Autonomous Weapons

70 Pages Posted: 24 Feb 2016 Last revised: 24 Dec 2016

See all articles by Chris Jenks

Chris Jenks

Southern Methodist University - Dedman School of Law

Date Written: 2016


Casting into the indeterminate future and projecting visions of so-called killer robots, The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots (The Campaign) has incited moral panic in an attempt to stimulate a discussion and ultimately a ban on lethal autonomous weapons (LAWS). Their efforts have been superficially successful but come at a self-defeating substantive cost. In the hope of shifting the dialogue from the hyperbolic to a constructive dialogue on the interaction between human and machine abilities in both current and future weapon systems, this article explores the conceptual paradox implicit in The Campaign and proposes an alternative.

Having provoked the international community to envision potential, future and dire harm from LAWS, the called for ban would include not only future “fully autonomous” weapons systems which don’t (and may never) exist but some unspecified portion of current weapon systems. That’s because the real issue, the real concern, is (or should be) autonomy in certain functions, notably selecting and engaging targets, essentially determining what to fire at and then firing. But weapon systems that select and engage targets without further human intervention have been in use by over thirty countries since 1980. Having rallied the world to worry about possible future harms, The Campaign is unable to differentiate and specify which current system should be included in the ban. The result is that the LAWS debate at the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) has stagnated.

This article explains autonomy in general and as applied to weapon systems. From there the article examines The Campaign’s two primary source documents, reports on LAWS by Human Rights Watch and also a United Nations Special Rapporteur. After explaining the conceptual and practical flaws with The Campaign’s approach, I propose an alternative, a moratorium on LAWS primary designed to lethally target personnel.

Keywords: Killers robots, LAWS, The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, Lethal Autonomous Weapons, robot, United Nations, Special Rapporteur, moral panic, uncanny valley, CCW, convention on certain conventional weapons

Suggested Citation

Jenks, Chris, False Rubicons, Moral Panic & Conceptual Cul-De-Sacs: Critiquing & Reframing the Call to Ban Lethal Autonomous Weapons (2016). Pepperdine Law Review, Vol. XLIV, No. 1, 2016, SMU Dedman School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 243, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2736407

Chris Jenks (Contact Author)

Southern Methodist University - Dedman School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 750116
Dallas, TX 75275
United States

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