This is the first of a two-part report that highlights the mounting importance for the national security agenda of technologies that are becoming increasingly autonomous, or becoming gradually more independent of human control in other words. At present, it is still relatively unclear how maturing autonomous technologies, including potentially fully autonomous and lethal systems, might impact national security exactly in terms of military and economic implications, or possible misuse by criminals. This two-part report finds that many questions still remain unaddressed and that there are several significant policy gaps that should be further analysed.
While some aspects of this area are still in their infancy, the full report aims to identify the key questions that are beginning to emerge. It also highlights the salient aspects of several discussions that have been recently initiated and will impact national security. Thus far, as a United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) report of March 2014 notes, there has been a lack of critical analysis on how the proliferation of increasingly autonomous systems might alter regional security dynamics. China, for instance, recently became the largest buyer of industrial robots, overtaking Japan for the first time with an approximately 60 per cent increase in a one-year period from 2012 to 2013. And while scientists, ethicists, and futurists, amongst others, have hotly debated several gaps marked within the report in the past, wider policy circles are only recently beginning to seriously consider these questions to the same extent. This two-part report argues that these issues now require deeper consideration and it is an opportune time to shape the strategic debate.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, recently explained that while the technology for drones is already in use and discussions are now being held on their regulation, autonomous robotics presents a unique situation since the technology is not actively used yet. This therefore presents some unique challenges, which are addressed throughout both parts of the report. The opening section of this first part of the report discusses the nature of maturing autonomous technologies and the significance of potential lethality. It finds that, although there is an increasing military interest in this area, a clear understanding of the nature of these technologies is still lacking in the policy community.
The next section then provides an outline of several broader military implications as well as cyber-related implications that could arise in this area. It is likely that states will pursue technological superiority via increasingly autonomous technologies for both economic and military reasons. Yet, deeper analysis of the long-term implications is needed in terms of possible military advantages and disadvantages that might ensue, including the role of the human vis-à-vis the machine, as well as how military interest in autonomy might evolve globally. Given geopolitical uncertainties in the Asia Pacific region, such developments could also be significant if states seek technological superiority with autonomous technologies.
The second part of this report analyses the challenges of controlling and regulating this space. While various stakeholders have made numerous recommendations, there does not seem to be a silver bullet solution at this juncture. Moreover, the report finds that there are several highly significant legal ambiguities, which require clarification.
Furthermore, these technologies often have a dual-use nature – for both military application and civilian purposes, and both the public and private sectors are driving these developments by investing heavily in R&D in pursuit of their own objectives. This part of the report finds that while innovation and economic growth should not be disproportionately stifled, stronger collaboration between the public sector and industry, as well as academic research laboratories, is advisable to shape policies responsibly and manage unexpected developments that could perhaps be detrimental. Malicious non-state actors also add a further layer of complexity since terrorist groups, organised crime gangs, or proxy actors could possibly obtain or alter commercially available technologies.
The last section of the second part of the report finds that the ethical implications of these tools require deeper consideration, and public perception of such advanced technologies is another important factor that should be considered.
About the Author
Caitríona H. Heinl is a Research Fellow responsible for research on cybersecurity matters under the Homeland Defence Programme at the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) within the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). CENS is a research unit which works closely with the National Security Coordination Secretariat (NSCS) within the Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore.
Conflict and Stability / Cybersecurity, Biosecurity and Nuclear Safety / Global / International Politics and Security / Policy Reports
Last updated on 04/04/2017