Faculty Journal Articles and Book Chapters


The United Nations (UN) Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) discussions on lethal autonomous weapons (LAWS) have been confused, not constructive, and largely for the same definitional reasons identified two years ago. This paper attempts to address why the dialogue at the UN LAWS dialogue has proceeded as it has and proposes how it should proceed at the likely group of government expert meetings in 2017-2018. This paper focuses on the problems created by framing the LAWS discussion in terms of full autonomy and suggests that CCW States Parties refocus on the critical functions of selecting and engaging targets. The full autonomy framework both confuses and distracts – and has driven the dialogue in an unproductive circular direction. To explain why framing the discussion in terms of full autonomy dooms the LAWS discussion to be perpetually circular in nature, Part I of this paper explores the challenges in trying to define and otherwise categorize system autonomy. This includes why distinguishing systems based on whether a human is in/on/out of loop, or whether a system is automated, automatic, or autonomous, is only of minimal, descriptive, utility. Part II then applies the concept of autonomy to weapon systems, focusing first on the reality that weapons systems capable of selecting and engaging targets without further human intervention have existed for decades and then on explaining why full autonomy is a distractor. Part III then emphasizes the need to refocus the LAWS conversation within the purpose of the CCW, following which the paper concludes.

Document Type



Lethal autonomous weapons, LAWS, United Nations, UN, Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, CCW, killer robots, autonomy



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