Screening Immoral Code: How can killing without human control be stopped?

@Heinrich Boell Stiftung (Green Party) in Berlin, 16.03.2023

In light of current wars and societal trends to automatization, how might autonomous weapons still be banned, and the deployment of LAWS (Lethal autonomous weapon systems) thus stopped? This question was at the center of the panel discussion following the screening of “Immoral Code” at the Heinrich-Böll foundation, 16 March 2023. A multitude of questions on ethics, politics, and law that are raised in the movie were accordingly discussed by three panelists from different backgrounds, complimented by the audience’s questions.

The movie’s title – “Immoral code” already describes the ethic nature of the problem at hand, as Thomas Küchenmeister, speaker of the campaign to Stop Killer Robots in Germany, puts it when introducing it to the audience: The movie aims to show the complexity of decision making in humans and how reducing these decisions to automated, binary processes raises a multitude of ethical questions. The movie introduces and tackles these questions by showing how ordinary people of different age groups and backgrounds are asked to make binary. Gradually, these participants are asked to answer more “difficult” questions, for example regarding situations in which they would accept killing another person or do it themselves. The audience witnesses how humans merge a variety of value judgements into an answer that can hardly be reduced to “yes” or “no”. With the help of experts in law, software engineering, artificial intelligence and the military, the movie makes viewers also realize that the topic at hand – weapon system operating without human control – is not only an ethical, but legal, technical, and security-related challenge.

Under the impression of this multitude of question marks, the event’s moderator, Giorgio Franceschini, from Heinrich Boell Stiftung Berlin addresses the audience, asking for a show of hands: In affirmation to expect witnessing the deployment of autonomous weapons in their lifetime, the overwhelming majority of visitors raises their hand. When being asked whether they believe to witness a ban of these weapons as well, several hands go down. This mixed atmosphere with a rather pessimistic tendency paves the way for the discussion to start, as the panelists are asked about their opinions on these two questions.

Different perspectives about optimism, use and risks of AI-based weapon systems and the German policy and international discussion and efforts are brought together by the three panelists: An expert and researcher about autonomous weapon systems, Anja Dahlmann, a member of German parliament, Merle Spellerberg and the former head of the Austrian delegation to the negotiations on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, Dr. Thomas Hajnoczi. While Anja Dahlmann doubts a clear ban and expects regulations on different multinational levels, Spellerberg, part of a parliamentary subcommittee for disarmament and member of the Green party, admits being optimistic by drawing a comparison to the treaty on nuclear weapons. The third panelist, Thomas Hajnoczi, takes his answer a step further into the topic. He mentions how international law is broken time and underlines the importance of legal awareness.

During the discussion, the panelists underlined, that in our modern society, the use of artificial intelligence and a general trend to automatization in several fields of society play an important role. Against this background, the idea of automatizing the use of force becomes increasingly pressing. The deployment of systems with autonomous capabilities have been reported more and more decisive in conflicts and wars in Ukraine, in Libya, and in Bergkarabach. It was mentioned that today, arms producing companies are even able to produce systems able to find and destroy targets without meaningful human control.

Currently, no specific international law regulates the deployment of autonomous weapons. For ten years, discussions in the weapons forum, the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva aim to tackle this gap, but there is no significant progress in terms of agreeing on a legally binding instrument. Anja Dahlmann mentioned, that there is astrong alliance opposing binding new international law consists of the USA, Canada, Australia, Japan, Korea, and Great Britain, that have submitted a working paper together. Likewise unsurprisingly, Russia blocks any progress. On the other end of the spectrum, a group of non-Aligned states advocates for a ban of LAWS, but given that the CCW’s decision making is bound to consensus, they remain unsuccessful in their efforts in this forum. During the event, a regional focus stays with Germany and France: Both states argue for a soft ban – possibly in order to get other states on board instead of scaring them away through more strict commitments on a ban.

Throughout the discussion, the German position and the government’s (lack of) ambition in the international negotiations remain the main object of discussion. One common theme shared by the panelists – and even more strongly by the audience – is disapproval of the German government’s role in the debate. In a recent joint proposal the German government has proposed to outlaw “fully autonomous systems” that are “completely out of human control”. However, this type of systems does not and will not exist, as such a system still requires some form of human input i.e. to start the system. However autonomous systems, which are able to identify and destroy targets without human control already exist and would not be covered by  the German proposal, Thomas Küchenmeister said. This important difference shows again how a precise definition of the respective object of discussion is crucial for policy making. Still, the German position leaves open a broader scope of interpretation.

This stance is met with disapproval by the audience: When asked whether there is satisfaction with the German position and its (lack of) engagement in the international sphere, only one person raises a hand in affirmation. At the beginning of the event the 60 participants, including military, were asked, weather they believe, that they will still see the use of autonomous weapons in their lifetime. Almost all of them believed that they will experience the use, and about half believed that there will be a ban on such weapons.

Aiming to explain the German position, Spellerberg, as the only parliamentary member in the panel asserts that while she would appreciate a clearer stance from Germany, it is “very difficult” in the parliament. According to her parliamentary allies to support a regulation or even a ban are very rare. The question why the Green party does not manage to assert itself in the coalition was not answered in the panel. As scientific expert, Anja Dahlmann underlines that a movement in the parliament that drives the discussion forward would be a necessary development. In comparison to these cumbersome steps, the Austrian diplomat weighs in on the criticism by depicting the domestic consensus in Austria as a positive example: According to him, the question to regulate certain weapons is ethical in nature and should not be intermingled with party politics.

This tedious situation in German politics leads the discussion to consider the role of actors from a different sector, raising questions regarding responsibilities of the armament industry. Among the panelists, there is agreement that voluntary commitments for and of companies do not replace state regulations. These commitments generally only play a vanishingly small role for corporations, as Thomas Küchenmeister weighs in from his experience with the industry. Instead, companies from all over the world often shift the (ethical and legal) responsibility onto the customers. Nevertheless, as Anja Dahlmann adds, strengthening a dialogue with the industry allows to collect information about technical possibilities. At the same time, she calls for awareness and caution regarding companies that might try to whitewash the dangers of weapon systems.

With an update on developments in the arm industry, Thomas Küchenmeister again underlines the urgency of the topic: The two trends that are currently in the center of developments and in the focus of defense companies are speed and autonomy. As armament companies already possess the ability and tools to produce autonomous systems, able to find and destroy targets without human control and in light of a general progressing automatization of societal processes, the need to set limits and ban deployment continues to become increasingly pressing. That this urgency also engages a broader audience becomes clear during a subsequent question and answer session. The sense of urgency is paired with an awareness of how difficult questions about ethics on the battlefield are, including sentiments such as pity or revenge. All in all, the call for human control remains overarching and the need for political action becomes clear. The disappointing lack of outcome of the CWW discussions in Geneva opens the question whether a new international platform like the UN General Assembly might be needed in order to reach a ban of autonomous weapons.