The UK Campaign to Stop Killer Robots aims to change the current UK Governments position from opposition to a ban on killer robots, to one of active support.
To achieve its goal, the UK campaign’s work is split across three reinforcing workstreams:
The UK campaign collaborates with students and university workers for transparency, democracy and accountability regarding research and development of Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems on campus. We ask institutions to: Establish a clear policy and commit publicly to not contributing to the development of LAWS; Ensure university staff and researchers are fully aware of what their technology is being used for and understand the possible implications of their work, and allow open discussions about any related concerns.
The UK campaign works with UK political parties and parliamentarians to build cross-party awareness of the challenges associated with growing autonomy in weapons systems. We work with MPs and Peers to stimulate parliamentary debate on LAWS and make the case for the UK Government to support the creation of a legally binding treaty prohibiting these weapons.
This workstream is modelled on the global campaign’s tried and tested ‘tech won’t build it’ campaign, which educates tech workers and firms and provides practical opportunities for them to participate in the campaign’s advocacy activities. We also build relationships with the tech and finance industries to develop evidence-based research highlighting how self-replicating flaws within algorithm-/machine learning-based weapons systems without meaningful human control violate international law.
The UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) claims that it ‘does not possess fully autonomous weapons and has no intention of developing them’. However, the MOD continues to prioritise and pursue research work in all three of the key disciplines underpinning autonomous technology: artificial intelligence and machine learning; robotics; and sensors. The MOD is also actively undertaking research into technology that supports the development of armed autonomous drones.
It is important to note that none of the MOD’s current projects directly intend to develop a lethal autonomous weapon system—a ‘killer robot’ able to select and destroy targets without any human intervention. However, these projects do contribute towards an increase in the UK military’s overall warfighting capability, and more strikingly, they represent developments in technology which in due course could be combined with other systems to form the building blocks of a lethal autonomous weapons system.
On the international stage the UK continues to play a hesitant role in relation to arms control initiatives aimed at checking the development and use of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS), which primarily involve meetings in the scope of the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). On the one hand, the UK has emphasised at the CCW the importance of maintaining human control over the use of weapons systems. Yet the UK also takes the view that an international legal instrument to ban LAWS is both premature, and might impede technology that, it argues, could provide ‘both military and humanitarian benefits’.
Claims by the UK that it has no intention of developing killer robots should thus be treated with caution. The UK government sees artificial intelligence and autonomous systems as indispensable for the military of the future, and many of the systems under development could be weaponised and enabled to operate beyond human control with relatively little difficulty. For example, the UK Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, stated in an interview with Sky News on 8th November 2020 that the UK ‘will absolutely avail ourselves of autonomous platforms and robotics wherever we can’ and that in the near future ‘I suspect we could have an army of 120,000, of which 30,000 might be robots, who knows’.
Carter’s comments raise several questions, including to what extent the MOD intends to reshape the armed forces around autonomy and robotics over the next decade. Clarity is therefore needed over whether there has been a change in official MOD policy on LAWS given its previous statements, including that the UK ‘has no intention to develop systems that operate without human intervention in the weapon command and control chain’.
Relatively recent publications that give indications of current official UK policy regarding killer robots are listed below:
Correspondence between the UK campaign and the government
Over the years, the UK campaign regularly communicated with the UK government in order to call on the UK to take action to prohibit the development of lethal autonomous weapons systems. Examples of our previous correspondence with the UK government are listed below:
Explore the global campaign website (here) and learn all about the latest trends regarding killer robots and the actions carried out by the global campaign.
Join the UK Campaign: if you or your organisation would like to engage with the UK campaign, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
In June 2021, the UK Campaign to Stop Killer Robots submitted written evidence to the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. The campaign emphasised that it is essential that the UK engages in public debate over policy on new military technologies, including AI and autonomous systems, and in particular articulates a robust set of ethical principles to govern their use and development.