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'Killer robots' and their use to be debated at United Nations

Experts will discuss the need for lethal autonomous machines able to identify and kill targets without human input

Killer robots and their use will be debated during a meeting of experts at the United Nations in Geneva, amid fears that once created they could pose a “threat to humanity”.

Prof Ronald Arkin and Prof Noel Sharkey will debate the need for so-called killer robots during the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), marking the first time the issue of killer robots has been discussed within the CCW.

Killer robots are autonomous machines able to identify and kill targets without human input.

Fully autonomous weapons have not yet been developed but technological advances are bringing them closer to existing.

Prof Sharkey, a member and co-founder of the Campaign Against Killer Robots and chairman of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control spoke ahead of the conference and warned autonomous weapons systems cannot be guaranteed to "predictably comply with international law."

He told the BBC: "Nations aren't talking to each other about this, which poses a big risk to humanity."

But Prof Arkin claimed killer robots could help reduce non-combatant casualties and may be more effective at determining when not to engage with a target than humans are.

However, he expressed concerns that the robots could be rushed into battle prematurely. "I support a moratorium until that end is achieved, but I do not support a ban at this time," Prof Arkin explained.

A full report on the discussions will be presented to the CCW in November

In March, the UN Human Rights Council heard concerns surrounding the ethical dangers such machines could pose.  

Christof Heyns - the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – called for a moratorium on such technology to prevent their deployment on the battlefield.

Read more: Ban 'Killer robots' that kill targets without human input

In a report submitted ahead of his address, he said: “robots should not have the power of life and death over human beings.”

Mr Heyns highlighted the US’s counter-terrorism operations using remotely-piloted drones to target individuals and argued: “there is reason to believe that states will, inter alia, seek to use lethal autonomous robotics for targeted killing.”

Examples of autonomous weapons systems already in use include the US Navy’s Phalanx gun system that automatically engages incoming threats and the Israeli Harpy drone that automatically attacks radar emitters.