Stop Killer Robots at RightsCon Costa Rica
From 5 June to 8 June 2023, the Stop Killer Robots campaign participated in RightsCon Costa Rica, a conference that gathered thousands of individuals, activists, civil society and industry stakeholders to discuss key issues in digital and human rights space, both online and in-person in San José. 2023 marks the fourth time Stop Killer Robots has participated in RightsCon.
Stop Killer Robots was present both in-person and online at RightsCon to address how challenging both autonomy in weapons systems and digital dehumanisation are integral to building an equitable and inclusive digital future for all. Digital dehumanisation is a process where humans are reduced to data, which is then used to make decisions and/or take actions that negatively affect their lives. Automated harm occurs when these decisions negatively impact us — autonomous weapons exist at the severe end of the spectrum of harms.
The four-day conference hosted at the Costa Rican Conference Centre in San José buzzed with over one thousand participants from 129 countries, with 57% identifying as women. Unfortunately, countless people suffered the systemic discrimination of border control after more than 300 people from 64 countries were excluded from in-person participation after their planned visas-on-arrival were not honoured. These folks’ voices were silenced in important conversations about human and digital rights and their perspectives and vital viewpoints were sorely missed. It is well-known that increasingly militarized borders are used as testing grounds for new surveillance technologies where migrants and people on the move are subjected to racial profiling and digital dehumanisation through facial recognition, biometrics, and so-called “risk-based targeting,”. Technologies with varying degrees of autonomy are already being deployed at the border and autonomous weapons systems targeting humans could be the next step in border control. In a time where the future implication of generative artificial intelligence (AI) technologies like ChatGPT dominates headlines, it’s important to recognize the present harms of digital dehumanisation that are currently being perpetrated against racialized and other marginalized communities.
Despite the limitations due to the exclusion of certain digital rights colleagues, RightsCon still managed to gather thousands of activists, journalists, human rights defenders, whistleblowers, government officials, and industry stakeholders for workshops, panels, roundtables and dialogues on how we can build a rights-respecting digital future. From sessions on AI governance, to technology-facilitated gender-based violence, to internet shutdowns and censorship, the urgent need for regulations, transparency, accountability, and human-rights-centred design were recurring themes across these diverse digital rights topics.
On Wednesday 7 June, the Automated Decision Research team of Stop Killer Robots, Sai Bourothu, Catherine Connolly, and Gugu Dube, led an online workshop entitled: “Two sides of the coin? AI and automated decisions in the civil and military spheres,”. The hour-long session, deftly led by researcher Sai Bourothu, addressed the challenges and lessons learned from the development of regulations for AI and automated decision-making technologies in the civil space and explored the ways in which these issues could be applied in the military sphere. Participants considered what measures policymakers can take to ensure human rights and international humanitarian law protections are safeguarded when addressing autonomy in weapons systems and ways to ensure that accountability exists in key areas in which AI and automated decision-making technologies are deployed, including in national security and defence.
Beyond this session, Stop Killer Robots consistently raised the issue of autonomous weapons systems with RightsCon participants and eagerly listened to their perspectives on why killer robots present profound legal, moral, and ethical challenges to digital and human rights. Some RightsCon attendees expressed concern over the enduring deadlock for regulation at the United Nations (UN) Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), while some were shocked to learn that killer robots were even being developed in the first place. RightsCon participants were nevertheless reassured to hear that 90 States are now calling for the negotiation of a legally binding instrument on autonomous weapons systems, a position supported by the UN Secretary-General, the International Committee of the Red Cross, thousands of technology and artificial intelligence experts, and civil society organizations from all over the world.
Across various contexts, civil society is demanding clear and specific guardrails, regulations, and prohibitions in the digital space. Many of the concerns raised by RightsCon participants are shared by Stop Killer Robots in our movement to maintain human control over the use of force — concerns over surveillance, algorithmic bias, data privacy, human rights, and more. As AI and other emerging technologies rapidly develop and evolve without regulation, particularly in the military sphere, it is necessary to understand their far-reaching implications and our role as civil society to centre human rights in these discussions and to push for the integration of human rights perspectives.
We’re continuing to engage national, regional, and global stakeholders to promote the importance of legal frameworks to regulate AI and automated decision-making technologies for national security and military purposes at the national, regional, and international level. As was evident from RightsCon, civil society is leading the way to make sure the technology that we create is used to promote human rights, peace, justice, and accountability.
Tech should be used to benefit humanity, not automate killing. While there is an immense amount of work left to address the intersection of human rights and digital technology, RightsCon provided a space for us in the digital rights community to take stock of our accomplishments and to collaborate for future work as we build a rights-respecting digital future for all.