Protecting a global population from killer robots

Air-based robot

We are driving global policy and practice to ban the use and development of military robots.

Professor Noel Sharkey, from our Department of Computer Science, has led extensive research into the legal, ethical and technological basis for the use of autonomous weapons systems – and their threat to humanity.

An expert in artificial intelligence and robotics, Professor Sharkey is pushing for an internationally-binding treaty to prohibit the development, production and use of autonomous weapons systems.

He said: "Robot weapons are a terrifying threat to humanity. If we do not put an end to this trend for automating warfare now, we could face a bleak future where machines are delegated with the decision to kill humans. This is perhaps the ultimate human indignity and crosses a fundamental moral line which needs to be considered and addressed."

In 2014 there was a major step forward towards this treaty - the first multilateral talks on military robots took place at the United Nations (UN) in Geneva. Representatives of the 117 states party to the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) attended the four-day meeting of experts on lethal autonomous weapons systems.

The convention is responsible for prohibiting weapons that cause unnecessary suffering and Professor Sharkey sees this meeting as significant development.

"It is a very exciting time and it was wonderful to see all those attending engaged with concern," he said.

Robot weapons are a terrifying threat to humanity. If we do not put an end to this trend for automating warfare now, we could face a very bleak future where machines are delegated with the decision to kill humans.

Professor Noel Sharkey

Professor Sharkey, who shared his expertise at the meeting, added: "There were statements from many states expressing the importance of the issues. Five nations called for an immediate ban of autonomous weapons."

Following the meeting, the head of disarmament from the UN, Angela Kane, has spoken to the General Assembly in New York saying that weapons should and must remain under the control of humans.

Professor Sharkey, who delivered a statement to the CCW in November 2014, said: "We now have a new mandate for further expert discussions in Geneva in April 2015.

"This is a crucial point in the history of weapons development and it is vital that we keep the discussions active."

Professor Sharkey has been working in the fields of Artificial Intelligence and robotics for more than 35 years. He and his research teams have produced a body of research on robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning.

In his most recent work, Professor Sharkey has explored whether autonomous weapons systems could be deemed either morally defensible or could technically comply with International law and legal conventions governing weapons and warfare.

This research has given Professor Sharkey deep insights into the capabilities and limitations of autonomous robots and established his reputation as a world-leading expert on military robots.

Ground robotHe has briefed international organisations like the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the European Parliament on the issues and has also given briefings to UK, German and French decision makers among many others.

Professor Sharkey’s expertise has also been highly sought after by the military around the world. He has given talks to the militaries from over 30 countries, of which four have incorporated the research findings into their officer training.

The findings of Professor Sharkey’s research also led him to co-found the NGO, International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC), made up of legal, technical and political experts whose aim is to stimulate and inform the debate on robots in warfare.

Together with a steering committee of eight other NGOs including Human Rights Watch and the Nobel Women’s initiative, ICRAC has spearheaded a global campaign calling for a new international, legally-binding treaty to prohibit the use and development of autonomous weapons. More than 50 major NGOs such as Amnesty International, the Nobel peace prize Pugwash from more than two dozen countries have joined the coalition.

Professor Philip Alston, Former UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, said: Professor Sharkey’s work stands out not only because of its high-quality technical analysis but also because it engages with some of the most problematic and controversial ethical issues raised by these developments.

"He has clearly established himself as the leading critic of the assumptions on which the leading military contractors are now proceeding in the development of new lethal technologies. Because of the depth of his technical and scientific expertise, his work is an indispensable reference point for those working on these issues."