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Aeryon, which is based in Waterloo and makes drones. handout Aeryon
Aeryon, which is based in Waterloo and makes drones. handout Aeryon

Globe editorial

Death by software, drones on autopilot Add to ...

It is Terminator meets Robocop, but this futuristic technology is not the product of Hollywood fantasies. Human rights groups worldwide have launched a campaign to ban work on robotic technologies aimed at creating fully autonomous battle drones that could identify and fire on targets without human control or intervention.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots called on the Canadian government this week to support creating an international law banning the use of fully autonomous weapons, arguing it is dangerous and morally wrong to allow machines to make decisions about killing humans. Such weapons are not in use yet, but a 2013 United Nations report said work is under way in a variety of countries, including the United States, Britain, China and Russia, buoyed by recent successes using remote-controlled drones in battle.

Supporters of autonomous robots say they can operate effectively, following proper protocols without succumbing to emotions, breaking laws or making poor choices under stress – and all without putting human soldiers’ lives at risk. Opponents, however, say it is dangerous to give killing power to a piece of machinery that can malfunction and cannot make complex ethical decisions. They also worry such weapons will lead to force escalation if politicians become more likely to use military options because they don’t have to risk soldiers’ lives.

Paul Hannon, executive director of Mines Action Canada, which has joined the global campaign, said Canada played a leading role in the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty and should show leadership again on killer robots. Mr. Hannon said in a statement the world must pre-emptively ban autonomous robot weapons because we “cannot afford to wait until we have another global catastrophe to deal with problematic weapon systems.”

The world has a long banned some weapons deemed dangerous, indiscriminate or inhumane, including chemical weapons and land mines. Autonomous robot weapons carry all such risks, and add new ones to the list. They are not wielded remotely by humans, but are intended to operate without supervision. They’re about turning life and death decisions over to software. Canada should be a leading voice advocating for a global protocol limiting their development and use.

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