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The Challenges Of Regulating Autonomous Weapons


The United Nations recently held meetings in Geneva to debate an emerging and controversial technology - autonomous weapons. These are more than just drones. They're weapons that in theory could operate independently of human control. Opponents call them killer robots. Here to make sense of this new area of military technology is Paul Scharre of the Center for a New American Security. He helped create the U.S. military guidelines on these weapons when he worked at the Pentagon. Welcome.

PAUL SCHARRE: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

MCEVERS: OK, so who is building these weapons?

SCHARRE: Well, a number of countries around the world - China, Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom and France - are all developing ever more sophisticated robotic weapons of a variety of fashions. Now, no one has come out and said clearly that they plan to cross the line to go to fully autonomous weapons, but the technology they're building is definitely going to come right up to that line. And none of these countries have also said that they wouldn't cross it either.

MCEVERS: I wonder if you could give us some examples of what kinds of autonomous weapons already exist. And then what are some things that are in development?

SCHARRE: Sure. There are a number of countries - at least 30 by our count - that actually have automated defensive systems that have a higher level of automation where a human turns them on. And then if there's an incoming threat, they can automatically fire to defend the ship or land base that they're defending.

MCEVERS: The Iron Dome, defense systems in South Korea - those are the few examples that come to mind of those kinds of things, yeah.

SCHARRE: That's right - systems like the U.S. Aegis Combat System, the U.S. Patriot.

MCEVERS: Those aren't fully autonomous, right? I mean, those would be semi-autonomous.

SCHARRE: Well, autonomous weapons that get authorized in supervised modes. So they're using very limited defensive settings. People are supervising their operation in real-time, and they can intervene to stop it. And they even have physical access, so if the machine started to simply go haywire, they could actually just physically unplug it.

MCEVERS: So give us an example of something that's, you know - could be developed in the future.

SCHARRE: So there are at least a half dozen countries building prototypes of combat drones that are designed to go into enemy territory. These would be things that would be stealth combat aircraft designed to penetrate into enemy territory where their communications might be jammed.

So that raises the question, well, what does it do when it's outside of human control? Is it allowed to strike pre-planned targets much like cruise missiles today? Or if it comes across a new target and a human hadn't programmed in guidance, does it strike it on its own according to some programming? And really, countries haven't made those decisions yet.

MCEVERS: As I said, the United Nations has been meeting about this. There's a group called The Future of Life Institute which opposes the development of these types of weapons. And they released a short video that was presented at one of these U.N. meetings. Let's just hear a quick clip of that.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Trained as a team, they can penetrate buildings, cars, trains, evade people, bullets - pretty much any countermeasure. They cannot be stopped.


MCEVERS: Sounds pretty scary what he's saying. Like, how far away are we from having what he is describing?

SCHARRE: So I think there's a couple different aspects of what he's describing that are really important to kind of separate out. A small drone that might be able to navigate up to a specific person, say, with facial recognition technology and then attack them - that technology all exist today. Now, cobbling that together with the autonomy to target people all on its own - no one's done that yet, but that exists.

Now, the next step, leaping to something that has no countermeasure that can't be stopped - that's science fiction. That just doesn't exist in the real world. All military technologies have some countermeasures. And defense analysts look at the balance between the offense and defense.

MCEVERS: There's a failsafe, yeah. We talked about these United Nations meetings. I mean, did the U.N. come to any meaningful decisions about regulating these things?

SCHARRE: No. They've been meeting for several years now, and they agreed to meet again. Diplomacy moves pretty slowly. And that is a real challenge on this topic, where the pace of technology is really outstripping the pace of diplomacy.

MCEVERS: Paul Scharre - his book "Army Of None" on autonomous weapons comes out this spring. Thank you very much.

SCHARRE: Thank you.