Tim McFarland: Autonomous weapons and human control

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Concerns about ensuring sufficient human control over autonomous weapon systems (AWS) have been prominent since the earliest days of the international regulatory debate. They have motivated calls for a comprehensive, proactive ban on development and use of highly autonomous weapons as well as a range of more nuanced proposals for defining and maintaining what is most commonly described as ‘meaningful’ human control.

Typically, degrees of human control over an AWS are expressed in terms of whether and in what capacity a human is directly involved in AWS operations, such as in the well-known ‘in the loop’ / ‘on the loop’ / ‘out of the loop’ spectrum. That close association between direct human involvement and human control is questionable in the context of AWS. The main problem is that it tends to obscure the fact that autonomous control is itself a form of human control, one which can sometimes be beneficially employed alongside, or instead of, direct human involvement in operation of a weapon system.

Dr Tim McFarland writes for the ICRC Humanitarian Law & Policy blog.