Autonomous Weapon Systems
The development of “autonomous weapons systems” (AWS) has been the subject of controversial debates for years. In many arenas, such as politics, research, law and civil society, the social, geopolitical and ethical implications of this technology are being discussed. Often this is accompanied by calls for strict regulation – including calls for a complete ban.
Despite this, essential questions are still unresolved. On the one hand, it is disputed which systems are to be considered autonomous weapons at all. This often refers to weapons that are ‘only’ automatic or semi-autonomous. On the other hand, it is still unclear how and in which situations human control can be ensured – and how this is to be technically implemented at all.
This indeterminacy is exacerbated by the fact that the debates do not only revolve around existing technologies, or ones that are currently being developed. They also evoke images of future systems that have so far been more of a conceptual vision, for example intelligent and human-like combat robots. The question of which technologies should be regulated and which should not be developed at all opens up a space of discourse that enmeshes existing systems with those that might possibly exist some time in the future.
These dynamics also raise more fundamental questions about the relationship between humans and machines, the degree of autonomy of artificial intelligence and the conditions of human control. These fundamental questions lie at the core of the debates on AI in general. But with the highly consequential technology of autonomous weapons, their relevance and urgency becomes particularly clear.
Fact, fiction and imagination
One of the main theses is that in discussions about autonomous weapons, realities are mixed with imaginations, which both subsequently influence each other. The meanings associated with autonomous weapons are therefore very diverse and range from landmines and combat drones, from human-like robot soldiers to cyber weapons. We look at existing social and technical imaginaries and examine the role they play in the broader public, political and scientific debate.
Human/machine interaction and human control
The attribute “autonomous” alone makes these weapon systems appear as technical units that act independently and are no longer subject to any human supervision or control. From a conceptual and theoretical point of view, this requires a classification of the advancing computerisation along broader developments in the field of artificial intelligence. Questions also arise regarding the role assigned to humans in these models (“human in the loop”?) and the conditions of interaction between humans and machines (shaped by interfaces, among other things).
The research on the topic of autonomous weapon systems is conducted jointly with the project Scenarios of interaction – Human-machine interfaces in the discussion on autonomous weapon systems at the University of Bonn, in which the different concepts of human-machine interaction in autonomous weapon systems are analysed. The discussions will be examined by focussing on the specific interface solutions for human-machine interactions in AWS and their socio-technical imaginaries. In this way, the media-related conditions of responsibility as a concept in warfare will be made accessible for critical reflection. The project at the University of Bonn is part of the BMBF-funded joint project Meaningful human control – Autonomous weapons systems in between regulation and reflection (coordinated at the University of Paderborn).
Part of the research programme
Digital & Indiscipline: HIIG Explainer videos with English subtitles
Elisa BirkmannStudent Assistant: The evolving digital society: concepts, discourses, materialities
Jascha BareisAssociated researcher: The evolving digital society
Lena HenkesResearcher: The evolving digital society & Deputy Editor Internet Policy Review
Thomas Christian Bächle, Dr.Head of research programme: The evolving digital society
Journal articles and conference proceedings
Bächle, T. C., & Bareis, J. (2022). “Autonomous weapons” as a geopolitical signifier in a national power play: analysing AI imaginaries in Chinese and US military policies. European Journal of Futures Research, 10(20). DOI: 10.1186/s40309-022-00202-w Publication details
Ernst, C., & Bächle, T. C. (2019). Autonomous weapons – reality or imagination? Digital society blog. Publication details
Bächle, T. C., & Sauer, F. (2019). Autonomous Weapons Systems – Frank Sauer über die Regulation autonomer Waffen, [Audio Podcast] Exploring digital spheres – a podcast by HIIG. Retrieved from: hiig.de/podcast. Publication details
Organisation of eventsDavid Betz: Kriegsführung im digitalen Zeitalter
29.08.2022. Holzmarktstraße 25, Berlin, Germany (International) Further information
Lena Henkes, Thomas Christian BächleAutonome Waffensysteme – Realitäten und Imaginationen zukünftiger Kriegführung
with attending Vip: Jürgen Altmann, Robin Geiß, Frank Sauer, Jutta Weber. 04.07.2019. Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society, Berlin, Germany. Co-Organised by: Christoph Ernst (National)
Thomas Christian BächleThinking about robots
04.04.2019. Humboldt Institut für Internet und Gesellschaft, Berlin, Germany (National)
Thomas Christian Bächle