Autonomous weapon systems are prone to proliferation, and are likely to lead to increased crisis instability and escalation risks.

In July 2015, an open letter from artificial-intelligence experts and roboticists called for a ban on autonomous weapon systems (AWS), comparing their revolutionary potential to that of gun powder and nuclear weapons.1 According to a 2012 Pentagon directive, AWS are weapon systems which, ‘once activated … can select and engage targets without further intervention by a human operator’.2 Proponents of AWS have suggested that they could offer various benefits, from reducing military expenditure to ringing in a new era of more humane and less atrocious warfare. By contrast, critics – some characterising AWS as ‘killer robots’3 – expect the accompanying political, legal and ethical risks to outweigh these benefits, and thus argue for a preventive prohibition.

AWS are not yet operational, but decades of military research and development, as well as the growing technological overlap between the rapidly expanding commercial use of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, and the accelerating ‘spin-in’ of these technologies into the military realm, make autonomy in weapon systems a possibility for the very near future. Military programmes adapting key technologies and components for achieving autonomy in weapon systems, as well as the development of prototypes and doctrine, are well under way in a number of states.

Accompanying this work is a rapidly expanding body of literature on the various technical, legal and ethical implications of AWS. However, one particularly crucial aspect has – with exceptions confirming the rule4 – received comparably little systematic attention: the potential impact of autonomous weapon systems on global peace and strategic stability.

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Jürgen Altmann is a lecturer in experimental physics at Technical University of Dortmund, working on the prospective assessment of new military technologies and the analysis of preventive arms-control measures.

Frank Sauer is a senior research fellow and lecturer in international relations at Bundeswehr University in Munich, working on international security and arms control. He is the author of Atomic Anxiety: Deterrence, Taboo, and the Non-Use of U.S. Nuclear Weapons (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). Both authors are members of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC).

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

October–November 2017

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