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  • Contact Tracing for Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems? Governance Mechanisms to Enhance Arms Control and Non-Proliferation
  • Aiden Warren (bio) and Alek Hillas (bio)

Lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) are emerging and futuristic technologies gathering increasing global attention, especially in relation to their dual-use components. Although the international community has not come to an agreement on the definition of LAWS, states have nonetheless articulated their concern through dialogue and fora about these machines, which could use artificial intelligence (AI) to complete an objective requiring movement across uncertain environments and the use of kinetic force on uncertain targets in the parameters of a designated mission. A distinction between LAWS and other robots is the former’s ability to decide whether to employ lethal force independent of human oversight. In considering possible measures for responding to the threats LAWS may pose (through their anonymity especially) to international peace and security, this article recommends policy-makers contemplate adopting early, pragmatic approaches for the regulation of LAWS from an arms control perspective.

In attempting to consider an approach for governance mechanisms to bolster non-proliferation, the article draws on the notion of ‘contact tracing,’ which will have become familiar to readers as a process to record the transmission of COVID-19 within and between communities, frequently assisted through the adoption of digital contact-tracing technologies. The first section of the article explores current debates and considers existing mechanisms within the United Nations to deliver such measures from an arms control context. The second section of the article proposes ‘tracing’ through distributed ledger technologies (DLTs) to deter against the proliferation of LAWS and to provide governance options for the introduction of a decentralized records management system on LAWS.

UN arms control mechanisms

The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), where LAWS have been under consideration since 2014, appears to be the most likely forum to reach an agreement on their control. The CCW contributes to the UN’s disarmament agenda by prohibiting or restricting the use of weapons that may be indiscriminate or cause excessive injury. It can be updated with new protocols in response to changes in armed conflicts and new technologies.1 From 2014 to [End Page 68] 2016, the UN office at Geneva convened annual informal Meetings of Experts on LAWS. Its initial mandate was “to discuss the questions related to emerging technologies in the area of lethal autonomous weapons systems, in the context of the objectives and purposes of the Convention,” and the agenda included discussion on technical issues, ethics, sociology, legal, and military aspects.2 From 2017 onwards, it became an open-ended Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on emerging technologies in the area of LAWS. In 2019, the GGE agreed on eleven ‘Guiding Principles.’3 The final principle affirmed the CCW’s role in offering “an appropriate framework for dealing with the issue of emerging technologies in the area of lethal autonomous weapons systems . . . which seeks to strike a balance between military necessity and humanitarian considerations.”4

During the meeting of the GGE in 2020, national commentaries provided further areas for consideration in relation to the operationalization of these guiding principles. Our primary focus below is on the principles that would precede or conceivably lead to a conflict, particularly guiding principles (f) and (j). In presenting these two principles sequentially, our intention is to juxtapose the very real security threats, outlined under principle (f), against the wishes to not curtail the civilian uses of robotics and AI under principle (j).

Guiding principle (f): “When developing or acquiring new weapons systems based on emerging technologies in the area of lethal autonomous weapons systems, physical security, appropriate non-physical safeguards (including cyber-security against hacking or data spoofing), the risk of acquisition by terrorist groups and the risk of proliferation should be considered.”5

In relation to guiding principle (f), Portugal has put forward one of the most detailed considerations. It argues that we should expect LAWS to be attained by clandestine actors at some interval in time. As such, a robust legal and operational mechanism and system should be in place to reduce the possibility of the procurement or development of LAWS by such actors. Undeniably, Portugal contends that...