The ethics of developing technologies

Two lines of work, on the ethics of military robotics and the potential development of autonomous weapons, have developed since 2013. These issues are highly relevant to Pugwash’s concern with ethical and humanitarian constraints on the conduct of warfare.

The Ethics of Military Robotics: These developments followed a discussion at the 2012 meeting of UNESCO’s World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Information and Technology (COMEST), on which Pugwash has a seat. On 21-22 March 2013 an expert workshop, hosted by Birmingham University’s Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security, discussed the ethical issues involved and how these might be addressed by COMEST. Speakers included Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. The workshop was supported by Network for Social Change, Marmot Trust, University of Birmingham Institute of Advanced Studies, the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham, and the University of Birmingham Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security.

A short report on the workshop was presented to the COMEST meeting in Bratislava in May, when COMEST accepted a recommendation to consider including this issue in its future workplan. A joint COMEST/Pugwash session on ‘Ethics of Converging Technologies’ at a two-day workshop following on from the Bratislava meeting included two of the main participants at the Birmingham workshop.

Professor John Finney continues to work on COMEST, representing Pugwash President Amb. Jayantha Dhanapala. He partici¬pated in the COMEST meeting in Quebec in Octo¬ber 2014, where ethical issues of converging technologies were further discussed. The meeting also worked on revising the 1974 UN Declaration on the Status of Scientific Researchers and on finalising COMEST’s draft report on the ethics of climate change.

Read the workshop report

The Development of Autonomous Weapons: John Finney has also represented Amb. Dhanapala in work that aims to prevent the development of autonomous weapons systems. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, coordinated by Human Rights Watch, has made remarkable progress since its launch in London in April 2013, with several different UN bodies engaging with the issue.

Following very successful discussions in September 2013 on the occasion of the UN First Committee in New York, the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) held an informal meeting of experts on lethal autonomous weapons systems in May, with 87 states participating. The high level of engagement by a range of countries showed an appetite to continue this work. At their annual meeting on November 14, 2014, the 117 states party to the CCW decided to continue to work on the issue.

At the UN Human Rights Commission (HRC) meeting in June 2014, Christof Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial, summary or arbitrary executions followed up his 2013 HRC report by stressing the importance of the HRC remaining seized with the issue of autonomous weapons systems, because of its implications for human rights during armed conflict as well as for law enforcement.

In further UN activities related to autonomous weapons, members of the campaign were asked to present at the July 2014 meeting of the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters. At that meeting, United Nations disarmament chief Angela Kane encouraged the Board to take into consideration how nations can take action now to address fully autonomous weapons as “the mere existence of an international legal obligation is often not enough” to rein in the technology.

One robotics company, ClearPath Robotics in Canada, has already “vouched to not manufacture weaponized robots that remove humans from the loop”.

More details are on the campaign’s website