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For several years, civil society groups have been calling for a ban on what they call "killer robots". Scores of technologists have lent their voice to the cause. Some two dozen governments now support a ban and several others would like to see some kind of international regulation.
Yet the latest talks on "lethal autonomous weapons systems" wrapped up last month with no agreement on a ban. The Group of Governmental Experts meeting, convened in Geneva under the auspices of the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, did not even clearly proceed towards one. The outcome was a decision to continue discussions next year.
Ban - Reasons - Failure - Agreement - Way
Those supporting a ban are not impressed. But the reasons for the failure to reach agreement on the way forward are complex.
What to ban?
Difficulty - Concerns - Technology - Question - Autonomy
The immediate difficulty concerns articulating what technology is objectionable. The related, deeper question is about whether increased autonomy of weapons is always bad.
Many governments, including Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom, have said they do not have, and do not want, weapons wholly uncontrolled by humans. At the same time, militaries already own weapons that, to some degree, function without someone pulling the trigger.
Navies - Weapon - Systems - CWIS - Weapons
Since the 1970s, navies have used so-called close-in weapon systems (CWIS). Once switched on, these weapons can automatically shoot down incoming rockets and missiles as the warship's final line of defence. Phalanx, with its distinctively shaped radar dome, is probably the best-known weapon system of this kind.
Armies now deploy land-based variants of CWIS, generally known as C-RAM (short for counter-rocket, artillery and mortar), for the protection of military bases.
Types - Weapons - Functionality - Example - Weapons
Other types of weapons also have autonomous functionality. For example, sensor-fuzed weapons, fired in the general direction of their targets, rely on sensors and preset targeting parameters to launch themselves at individual targets.
None of these weapons has stirred significant controversy.
What exactly is the...
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