Remarks at Dialogue on Autonomous Weapons Systems and Human ControlDisarmament and Arms Control
Good evening and thanks so much for the introduction.
It is a pleasure to be at tonight’s event and to join such a diverse line up.
I’d like to thank Mary Wareham of Human Rights Watch – and formerly the coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Killer Robots – for bringing us all together this evening.
As is so often the case, civil society has been the catalyst for action.
I appreciate, too, all the different perspectives we will be hearing tonight. It’s these that we must call upon as we grapple with the novel challenges posed by autonomous weapons systems.
If world governments do nothing to prevent or regulate autonomous weapons systems, it’s not hard to imagine a situation where they might begin to dominate or transform war zones.
Deployed in large swarms, autonomous drones could deliver devastating humanitarian and environmental consequences, and the possibility for total war. The nightmare battlefield scenario of many visionary authors and filmmakers will become a reality.
Those states with already questionable human rights records would have another tool to deploy against their own people.
Deploying weapons without considering whether you are putting your soldiers at risk will make it easier for governments to deploy. Regional tensions will boil over as governments carry out opportunistic attacks, and existing tensions quickly elevate into international flashpoints.
Armed militia, terrorist groups and even narcos will have access to a new and disastrous weapon – resulting in the commission of even greater crime, and increased impunity for those in the commission of crime or war.
There are as many as 200 million Kalashnikov rifles in circulation globally. Without effective measures to curb the automation of armed conflict, the damage done by those 200 million weapons will pale in significance to the spectre of future wars where conflict is delegated to machines.
It is clear from the interest we are seeing in this issue that the prospect of autonomous weapons systems is of deep concern to many different sectors of New Zealand, as it is to the international community.
For governments and civil society, militaries and academics, ethicists and entrepreneurs, the possibility of machines making life and death decisions challenges our fundamental values and beliefs.
As you may have gathered by now, making sure autonomous weapons systems are appropriately regulated internationally is one of my key priorities as Disarmament Minister. This is reflected in New Zealand’s new disarmament strategy.
Technology firms and AI experts have been warning us for years that we must wake up to the risks posed by killer robots.
There is now a growing international movement to ban and regulate autonomous weapons systems. Our government shares the concern about autonomous weapons and the risks they pose to humanity - and shares the commitment to mobilise people, grow the movement, and build momentum behind the call for action.
The prospect of a weapon that could identify, select and attack a target without any human involvement terrifies me, and seems completely at odds with the values we hold dear. And that’s before we get to the destabilising effect such a device could have, including in some of the most fragile security situations around the world.
International Humanitarian Law gives us an excellent legal grounding for the laws of armed conflict. But there are serious doubts about whether a robotic system could ever comply with its basic requirements, such as discriminating between a combatant and a civilian, recognising when a combatant is surrendering or injured, and considering proportionality - judgements that are an exercise in humanity. How can these be delegated to a machine?
Just as alarming are the capabilities they could offer to oppressive governments, terrorist groups and other non-state actors. Access to these weapons systems will be easy, and the potential for dual-use technologies to be re-deployed in this setting, makes it extremely difficult to impose effective controls.
New Zealand is deeply concerned, too, about the dehumanising effect of autonomous targeting technology, and the coded biases that perpetuate systemic discrimination and the persecution of minorities.
While some autonomous technologies may bring benefits to militaries around the world for legitimate, legal, and ethical applications, we are clear about the need to agree international controls to ensure their uses stays within these boundaries.
And we now know the concerns we have as a government are shared by New Zealanders.
To support our ongoing work in this area, we recently commissioned a national survey of 2,000 kiwis to gauge their understanding of autonomous weapons systems, their views about the use of these systems in war, and their perceptions of the benefits and risks.
And the survey results were fascinating! But they also reinforce my earlier point on education and advocacy, because we now know relatively few New Zealanders are aware of autonomous weapons systems. To be fair, we have a lot going on right now – an international pandemic does that. But even without this pre-existing knowledge, many respondents were able to understand quickly the basic concept – and the inherent risk.
72% of those surveyed opposed the use of autonomous weapons in war, with half strongly against their use. This puts New Zealand third highest in a group of 28 countries surveyed by Human Rights Watch, with the third greatest level of opposition to autonomous weapons systems.
A range of concerns were expressed. 60 percent are concerned that they would be subject to technical failures. More than half think they cross a moral line because machines should not be allowed to kill, and a similar number are worried about a lack of accountability. On the flipside, a quarter of participants saw some merit in their potential to enhance military capability, reduce harm and injury to military personnel and to reduce human error.
In terms of New Zealand’s response, half of those surveyed thought we should advocate for national and international controls on the development and use of autonomous weapons, with many respondents recognising the seriousness of the threat posed by such weapons. Close to a third of New Zealanders were concerned, however, that this could put New Zealand’s security at risk, or stifle the legitimate development and use of artificial intelligence.
Although these results are just one part of the ongoing consultation process, they provide an important insight into the different concerns that exist, as well as the interests and priorities that the Government will need to balance later this year when it considers our approach to autonomous weapons systems. They also show the public consider these issues in a thoughtful and nuanced sort of way – perhaps reflecting the awareness we have as a country on disarmament issues.
While our work is still very much underway – mirroring a process taking place in many Governments around the world – a clear direction of travel is emerging. This is:
- To ensure compliance with international humanitarian law, unpredictable and uncontrollable autonomous weapons systems must be expressly ruled out.
- Autonomous weapons systems falling short of this threshold must be subject to the regulations and controls necessary to retain meaningful, appropriate or sufficient human control.
- In keeping with our approaches to disarmament efforts more broadly and the importance we are attaching to this issue, New Zealand has a preference for legally-binding rules – which the TPNW has shown to be both viable and effective.
- But our overarching objective is to seek the most effective international control of autonomous weapons systems and we will pursue that in whatever form will deliver upon our objectives.
- There is an urgent need for the international community to negotiate towards this objective in whatever forum can be most effective. Right now all eyes are on the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which will set a mandate for any ongoing work on autonomous weapons systems within the Group of Governmental Experts. We need the CCW to rise to the challenge before it, and I hope all delegations can continue to engage in this forum in good faith.
New Zealand does not have all the answers but we are committed to cooperating with partner governments, international organisations, civil society, industry and others to work them out and to do so quickly. As the International Committee of the Red Cross and many others have made clear, time is of the essence.
I am looking forward to the remainder of the evening, and to hearing from many of you.
I invite you all to remain in touch on these issues. If you have concerns, ideas and contributions that you’d like to make, we want to hear from you.