Brief #40 – Technology

By Charles A. Rubin

Killer Robots are a Reality, Where Does the Biden Administration Stand?

Policy Summary

Fully autonomous weapons, the stuff of dystopian sci-fi novels, are now approaching reality. The US, China, Israel, South Korea, Russia, and the UK are developing weapons systems with significant autonomy in their critical functions of selecting and attacking targets. If left unchecked the world could enter a destabilizing robotic arms race. These weapons include autonomous submarines, precision bombs and autonomous machine guns similar to the one that Iranians authorities claimed to have killed scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in late November.

Unlike drone weapons, which have a human albeit remote handler, Fully Autonomous Weapons Systems (FAWS) decide algorithmically who lives and who dies without further human intervention. FAWS systems cross a moral threshold that lack the inherently human characteristics such as compassion that are necessary to make complex ethical decisions. With a new administration the United States must take a leadership role in banning these weapons worldwide.


Replacing troops with FAWS could likely make the decision to go to war easier and shift the cost of conflict even further onto civilians. FAWS would make tragic mistakes with unanticipated consequences that could inflame tensions a greater possibility.

Twenty eight countries have called for a pre-emptive ban on killer robots. In addition, the Non-Aligned Movement, the largest bloc of states operating in the UN, has called for a legally binding instrument stipulating prohibitions and regulations of such weapons. Austria, Brazil, and Chile support the negotiation of “a legally binding instrument to ensure meaningful human control over the critical functions” of weapon system. A few others have expressed their interest in non–legally binding mechanisms, such as a political declaration proposed by France and Germany. Until the US, China and its allies join this movement and ban companies from R&D the advancement and eventual deployment will only continue.

According to a report from the Congressional Research ServiceU.S. policy does not prohibit the development or employment of FAWS. Although the United States does not currently have FAWS in its inventory, some senior military and defense leaders have stated that the United States may be compelled to develop FAWS in the future if potential US adversaries choose to do so.”

The US National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, in an interim report released to Congress in October 2020, acknowledged the risks of autonomous weapons. The commission, headed by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, warned of pressure to build machines that react quickly, which could escalate conflicts. The panel strongly emphasized the need to have humans make decisions on launching nuclear warheads, for instance. The panel recommended anti-proliferation work as opposed to a treaty banning the systems, which it said would be against US interests and difficult to enforce. It is clear, though, that the US must stake out a position and lead the debate.

Renewal Resources

  1. The Federation of American Scientists provides science-based analysis of and solutions to protect against catastrophic threats to national and international security.
  2. Reaching Critical Will (RCW) is the disarmament programme of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), the oldest women’s peace organisation in the world.
  3. Parliamentarians for Global Action (PGA) is an international network of legislators who work together to advance peace and understanding around the world.
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