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The evitability of autonomous robot warfare*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 March 2013


This is a call for the prohibition of autonomous lethal targeting by free-ranging robots. This article will first point out the three main international humanitarian law (IHL)/ethical issues with armed autonomous robots and then move on to discuss a major stumbling block to their evitability: misunderstandings about the limitations of robotic systems and artificial intelligence. This is partly due to a mythical narrative from science fiction and the media, but the real danger is in the language being used by military researchers and others to describe robots and what they can do. The article will look at some anthropomorphic ways that robots have been discussed by the military and then go on to provide a robotics case study in which the language used obfuscates the IHL issues. Finally, the article will look at problems with some of the current legal instruments and suggest a way forward to prohibition.

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Copyright © International Committee of the Red Cross 2013 

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The title is an allusion to a short story by Isaac Asimov, ‘The evitable conflict’, where ‘evitable’ means capable of being avoided. Evitability means avoidability.


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3 Article 50(1) of the Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, 8 June 1977 (hereinafter Additional Protocol I)

4 As a scientist I cannot exclude the notion that some black swan event could change my scepticism, but at present we certainly cannot rely on this as a credible option in discussions of lethal force and the protection of innocents.

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24 See R. C. Arkin, above note 6, p. 174.

25 Ibid., p. 91.

26 Ibid., p. 176.

27 Ibid., p. 172.

28 Ibid., p. 259.

29 Ibid., p. 174.

30 Ibid., p. 178.

31 Ibid., p. 47.

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33 I am uncomfortable with this expansion of the automation of killing for a number of other reasons that there is not space to cover in this critique. See, for example, Sharkey, Noel E., ‘Saying — No! to Lethal Autonomous Targeting’, in Journal of Military Ethics, Vol. 9, No. 4, 2010, pp. 299313CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 See also the statement of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC), at the Berlin Expert Workshop, September 2010, available at: (last visited 1 June 2012).

35 Additional Protocol I. This was not signed by the US.

36 There is a touch of the hat to the idea that there may be ethical issues in the ‘unmanned systems integrated road map 2009–2034’, but no detailed studies of the law or the issues are proposed.

37 United Nations Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May be Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects, in force since 2 December 1983 and an annex to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949. I thank David Akerson for discussions on this issue.

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40 Ibid., para. 105, subpara. 2E.

41 See N. Sharkey, above note 2.

42 Valery Insinna, ‘Drone strikes in Yemen should be more controlled, professor says’, interview with Christopher Swift for the National Defence Magazine, 10 October 2006, available at: (last visited January 2012).