Beyond the Ban: Comparing the Ability of 'Killer Robots' and Human Soldiers to Comply with IHL
46 Fletcher Forum of World Affairs 15 (2022)
15 Pages Posted: 27 Apr 2022 Last revised: 13 Feb 2023
Date Written: April 21, 2022
Much of the legal debate over the use of autonomous weapons systems (AWS) focuses on whether AWS are capable of respecting basic principles of international humanitarian law (IHL). In one camp are the “techno-pessimists”: scholars who insist that AWS are not and never will be capable of complying with IHL. In the other camp are the “techno-optimists”: scholars who believe not only that AWS will eventually be able to comply with IHL, but also that the use of AWS can make armed conflict less violent.
There is, however, a puzzling lacuna at the heart of this debate. For all their differences, techno-pessimists and techno-optimists agree that the central question is whether AWS will ever be able to comply with IHL better than human soldiers. Yet the debate focuses almost exclusively on the technological limits of AWS; discussion of the cognitive errors that so often cause human soldiers to violate IHL is limited to anecdote, while systematic comparison of AWS and human soldiers in terms of their ability to comply with IHL is completely absent.
Using two scenarios involving the principle of distinction, this short article sketches the kind of research that is needed to determine whether AWS will ever be able to comply with IHL better than human soldiers. It suggests that, given human cognitive limits and machine technological potential, there is indeed reason to believe that in at least some combat situations AWS will eventually be able to outperform human soldiers in terms of IHL compliance.
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation