‘Rise of the killer robots: the future of war’


Sir , – Laura Nolan deserves great credit for protesting Google’s role in the development of the US military’s artificial intelligence project Maven and for lobbying for a United Nations treaty to ban autonomous weapons (Joe Humphreys, “Rise of the killer robots: The future of war”, January 16th).

Ms Nolan says she thinks that with the usage of such weapons, “it’s almost certain that we will see accidents where civilians are killed” or “damage to civilian installations”.

But in fact civilians are already the main victims in current warfare . In Syria, for example, it is actually children who bear the brunt of aerial attacks from the Assad regime and Russia, which with Iran are overwhelmingly the main parties responsible for the killing of civilians there. Nearly one in four civilians killed in Syria is a child, according to a 2017 report in the medical journal Lancet Global Health. Civilians accounted for 71 per cent of deaths in the first six years of the conflict, compared to 29 per cent who were opposition fighters. The study was particularly critical of the use of barrel bombs, dropped by Syrian regime forces on hospitals, markets and homes, with civilian deaths accounting for about 97 per cent of all fatalities associated with them. In 2016, the UN speculated that the overall death toll figure in Syria had reached approximately 400,000. It has been increasing daily since then. The US-backed assault to drive Isis from Raqqa in 2017 killed more than 1,600 civilians, according to a damning report published by Amnesty International and the monitoring group Airwars.

There is a clear need for treaties and legal instruments to prevent the development of autonomous weapon systems – “one of the most pressing issues on the international disarmament agenda” which raises “serious ethical, moral and legal questions”, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs, as quoted in Joe Humphreys’s piece.

But first a reality check as the vote for Irish membership of the UN Security Council approaches in June 2020. Raising ethical, moral and legal concerns is increasingly meaningless. The international rules-based order is already in a shambles. Impunity reigns. Kareem Shaheen, a highly respected commentator on the Middle East has stated regarding Syria: “Over a decade of warfare and destruction,every international norm that was once thought of as sacrosanct has been violated with a defiance that once defied belief, until it became par for the course.It is a stark contrast to the message the world emerged with from the genocides in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda – a mantra of ‘never again’ uttered in the halls of international tribunals . . . Syria has carved the epitaph of the collective conscience of the international community.”

One cannot hold out much hope for a ban on autonomous weapons. – Yours, etc,


Dublin 7.