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Rights group advocates ban on fully autonomous weapons

Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] on Monday issued a report [text, PDF; press release] that describes the threat from and advocates for the ban of fully autonomous weapon systems. These weapons systems are essentially robots that would be able to operate without human direction or interaction, and while they have yet to be used in a combat zone, they are in development for future conflicts. The report expresses concern that, in addition to potential lack of accountability for the effects of the weapons' use, the weapons "inherently lack human qualities that provide legal and non-legal checks on the killing of civilians." The report had a number of recommendations including encouraging countries to:

Prohibit the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons through an international legally binding instrument. ... Adopt national laws and policies to prohibit the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons. ... [and] Commence reviews of technologies and components that could lead to fully autonomous weapons. These reviews should take place at the very beginning of the development process and continue throughout the development and testing phases.
Finally, HRW advocated the creation of a "professional code of conduct governing the research and development of autonomous robotic weapons."

The use of high technology weapons, including robots, unmanned drones, and cybersecurity attacks, present a myriad of new problems for law- and policy-makers, military planners and the public at large. The challenges include determining which technologies should be permitted, the limits to the manner in which they will be used and the definition of accountability for the results of the various tools. In July, US lawmakers, at a hearing before the US House Committee on Homeland Security [official website], expressed concern [JURIST report] over the use of unmanned drones and sought information on their domestic use and their potential security and safety implications. In April the US House of Representatives [official website] voted to approve a controversial cybersecurity bill [JURIST report] that would allow private companies and the federal government to exchange private security information. In April 2007 a German court ruled [JURIST report] that police in Germany are not permitted to secretly access computer and Internet data stored on suspects' computers without proper authorization.

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