Present futures: Concluding reflections and open questions on autonomous weapons systems

Nehal Bhuta, Susanne Beck, Robin Geiß

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The debate concerning the law, ethics and policy of autonomous weapons systems (AWS) remains at an early stage, but one of the consistent emergent themes is that of uncertainty. Uncertainty presents itself as a problem in several different registers: first, there is the conceptual uncertainty surrounding how to define and debate the nature of autonomy in AWS. Contributions to this volume from roboticists, sociologists of science and philosophers of science demonstrate that within and without the field of computer science, no stable consensus exists concerning the meaning of autonomy or of autonomy in weapons systems. Indeed, a review of definitions invoked during a recent expert meeting convened by states parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons shows substantially different definitions in use among military experts, computer scientists and international humanitarian lawyers.

At stake in the debate over definitions are regulatory preoccupations and negotiating postures over a potential pre-emptive ban. A weapons system capable of identifying, tracking and firing on a target without human intervention, and in a manner consistent with the humanitarian law obligations of precaution, proportionality and distinction, is a fantastic ideal type. Defining AWS in such a way truncates the regulatory issues to a simple question of whether such a system is somehow inconsistent with human dignity – a question about which states, ethicists and lawyers can be expected to reasonably disagree. However, the definition formulated in this manner also begs important legal questions in respect of the design, development and deployment of AWS. Defining autonomous weapons in terms of this pure type reduces almost all questions of legality to questions of technological capacity, to which a humanitarian lawyer's response can only be: ‘If what the programmers and engineers claim is true, then … ’ The temporally prior question of whether international law generally, and international humanitarian law (IHL) in particular, prescribes any standards or processes that should be applied to the design, testing, verification and authorization of the use of AWS is not addressed. Yet these ex ante considerations are urgently in need of legal analysis and may prove to generate deeper legal problems.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAutonomous Weapons systems
Subtitle of host publicationLaw, Ethics, Policy
EditorsNehal Bhuta, Susanne Beck, Robin Geis, Hin-Yan Liu, Claus Kres
PublisherCambridge University Press
ISBN (Print)9781316597873
Publication statusPublished - 2016


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