By Rebekah Sears
Killer Robots: they’re not just features of futuristic dystopian movies, even though I’m sure the first thing that came to mind was The Terminator!
Developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology has increased exponentially in recent years, from Siri to self-driving cars to autonomous drones, able to reach remote communities. So much of this technology has been marketed as improving lives and creating opportunities for all.
However, many experts within the AI community have long argued about the dangers of limitless development and use of this technology; particularly when it comes to fully autonomous weapons, aka Killer Robots. It’s not about defunding or vilifying the AI sector, but rather about ensuring that such technology will never be used as a weapon – i.e. autonomous devises programmed to kill and destroy.
These experts have joined scientists, human rights, and disarmament advocates from around the world in a campaign calling on governments to commit to a total ban on the development and use of fully autonomous weapons (The Campaign to Ban Killer Robots).
Last week (Aug 27-31, 2018), civil society and state actors participated in a gathering at the UN in Geneva to discuss the urgent need for a ban on autonomous weapons. Activists are calling for a global ban by 2019.
Considering this, where does Canada fit – what are Canada’s global responsibilities in the movement to ban Killer Robots?
- Canada’s claims as a global human rights leader demands it.
“We’re Canada and we’re here to help,” exclaimed Prime Minister Trudeau in his first speech at the United Nations in 2016. In this and other grand proclamations since, the Trudeau government established itself – in words, anyway – as a global leader in protecting universal human rights.
The evidence for significant human rights concerns – from international humanitarian law to the lack of trustworthiness and ingrained bias within the technology itself – is clear and speaks for itself.
Canada has yet to clarify its own policy on the development and use of autonomous weapons. From the 2017 Canadian Defence Policy – Strong, Secure, Engaged – in 113 pages, there is only one mention of autonomous weapons: “The Canadian Armed Forces is committed to maintaining appropriate human involvement in the use of military capabilities that can exert lethal force,” (pg 73). However, appropriate human involvement is never defined.
- Canada has clearly named AI as an economic priority/opportunity
In the 2017 Federal Budget, the Canadian government designated $125 million for investment in Canadian-based AI companies. The government sees an opportunity for Canada to become a leading innovator in AI technology.
Again, this is not to say that Canada should not invest in such industries. But with such emphasis put on innovation in AI as a priority, it is critical that the Canadian government equally emphasize the importance of global leadership in preventing the development of autonomous weapons.
If Canada could be a leader in the movement to ban land mines in the 1990s – even though Canada did not have nor use land mines – it is even more critical that Canada, a leader in AI technology, use such influence to also call to ban the use of AI technology to development and use of autonomous weapons.
- The voices of the public and the tech community
Finally, some of the loudest voices in Canada calling for the government to support a ban on killer robots are those in the field itself, including AI researchers and developers.
In November 2017, five leaders in the AI field in Canada addressed several of these concerns in an open letter to Prime Minister Trudeau. Over 650 academics, practitioners, and developers then signed on. The Prime Minister has yet to respond.
“AI has tremendous potential to be a force for good in society,“ said Donna Precup, Canada Research Chair in Machine Learning, McGill University, in 2017. “As part of the AI research community, I think it is our moral obligation to ensure it continues to develop in this direction and prevent it from being mis-appropriated for harm.”
Polls in Canada and around the world show significant distrust of AI in general and even more definitive disapproval for their use in weapons. Canadians, and others around the world, are distressed at possible impacts on civilians and indiscriminate killings completely outside of any human control.
What are we waiting for?
As of now, fully autonomous weapons – Killer Robots – have not yet been fully developed or used in combat.
But as Paul Hannon, Director of Mines Action Canada argues, now is the time for Canada to come on board and ban such weapons pre-emptively, before they even see the light of day: “We know the revolution is coming and we know we can stop it, peacefully, without death or injury.”
By Rebekah Sears, Policy Analyst for MCC Ottawa Office.