Is Israel's Iron Dome the precursor to futuristic 'killer robots'?

Human Rights Watch argues that “technology is moving in the direction” of creating “fully autonomous weapons.”

April 9, 2015 22:56
1 minute read.
Iron dome

Soldiers stand near the Iron Dome missile defense system outside Tel Aviv.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Are we on the verge of manufacturing armies of self-aware “killer robots” that could operate autonomously and without the direction of humans?

According to a new report issued by Human Rights Watch, governments ought to ban the use of “killer robots” for fear that their use raises “serious moral and legal concerns because they would possess the ability to select and engage their targets without meaningful human control.”

HRW, which published the report jointly with Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, argues that “technology is moving in the direction” of creating “fully autonomous weapons.”

The report cited the Iron Dome anti-rocket system used by the IDF most prominently during the recent military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aircraft Industries, Iron Dome intercepts incoming rockets and projectiles by using a mechanism that is programmed to automatically respond to threatening munitions.

HRW argues that the development of “killer robots” would be problematic since they would lack human traits such as “judgment, compassion, and intentionality.”

“Fully autonomous weapons themselves cannot substitute for responsible humans as defendants in any legal proceeding that seeks to achieve deterrence and retribution,” the report argues.

The development and deployment of these kinds of futuristic weapons would allow governments and their militaries to evade legal responsibility for any mishaps that may occur in foreign countries, the rights group argues.

“A fully autonomous weapon could commit acts that would rise to the level of war crimes if a person carried them out, but victims would see no one punished for these crimes,” the report’s lead author, Bonnie Docherty, argued.

Docherty serves as HRW’s senior arms division researcher.

“The lack of accountability adds to the legal, moral and technological case against fully autonomous weapons and bolsters the call for a preemptive ban,” she said.

Two years ago, Nobel Laureate Jody Williams launched a campaign titled “Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.”

"If war is reduced to weapons attacking without human beings in control, it is going to be civilians who are going to bear the brunt of warfare," said Williams.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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