BERLIN — France and Germany are pushing a compromise on the regulation of deadly weapons powered by artificial intelligence, angering activists who say Europe should be leading the charge for a ban.
The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots group, which represents 65 nongovernmental organizations in 28 countries, said Germany — in a shift from its earlier position — is increasingly falling in behind French reluctance to back binding rules for lethal autonomous weapons, or LAWs.
“We are disappointed that Germany has decided to work so closely with France to promote measures less than a ban, and less than a legally binding instrument or a legally binding treaty,” said Mary Wareham, the groups global coordinator.
The two countries suggest that its too early to come up with a legally binding treaty and that, for now, international law and a political declaration are enough to keep weapons under control.
This largely reflects Frances position of recent years that it is premature to ban weapons before theyre in use.
Some countries — including the United States, Russia and China — strictly oppose a ban on LAWs, according to negotiators.
Next month, governments meet for the fifth time in Geneva to discuss whether and how to regulate LAWs. The campaign group is pushing for a quick move toward binding regulation, sending a letter to national capitals, in which it warns that “the window for credible preventative action” in a U.N. forum is “fast closing.”
Officials from France and Germany rejected Warehams allegations, arguing that Paris and Berlin are the main capitals pushing for a compromise between countries that are deeply divided over the issue.
Some countries — including the United States, Russia and China — strictly oppose a ban on LAWs, according to negotiators. Others, primarily developing countries, are eager to implement strong regulation as soon as possible.
Michael Biontino, Germanys permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, stressed in an email that Berlin remains “fully committed to apply international law to autonomous weapons,” adding that, “the negotiation process is shaping up to be long and difficult.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel | Omer Messinger/EPA
“While a number of countries see no need to regulate this area, a group of countries is calling for an immediate ban to the development of autonomous weapons,” he wrote. “Hence, Germany and France have proposed a third way that might be the best achievable compromise.”
A high-ranking French official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “If we had worked on a stronger language, then immediately wed have triggered opposition from those countries who dont want anything.”
We cant ban something that doesnt exist
Around the world, militaries and arms manufacturers are testing systems that use artificial intelligence technology to operate in swarms or choose targets independently. They could soon outperform existing military technology at only a fraction of the cost.
The development of such weapons has led a diverse alliance of rights groups, academics and military officials to call for regulation of LAWs or an outright ban.
Berlin had previously rallied, albeit cautiously, behind the calls for a ban.
In February, the head of Germanys cyber command said his country would not acquire autonomous weapons. And in Chancellor Angela Merkels new coalition agreement, her government states that it opposes “autonomous weapon systems that are detached from the control of people,” and that it “wants to ban them” — which echoes language in her last governments coalition agreement from 2013.
Despite those declarations, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots kept Germany off its list of 22 countries that back a ban on the weapons. Group coordinator Wareham said this was partly because of a “non-paper” that France and Germany released ahead of the first official meeting of government experts at the U.N.s Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva last November.
In the document, they suggested that rather than call for a ban, the experts issue a political declaration asserting that “humans should continue to exert sufficient control over lethal weapons systems they use.”
“We cannot ban something that does not exist” — Michael Biontino, Germanys permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva
Biontino did not answer a question about Germany shifting away from supporting a ban. The French official said both countries had come to the conclusion that only interim regulation was necessary and feasible for now because fully autonomous weapons are not yet a battlefield reality.
“We cannot ban something that does not exist,” he said, adding that AI-powered weapons might prove more accurate in targeting than human-led systems could be.
The French official cautioned that pushing for a ban would backfire. “If you put on the table a proposal which is very ambitious to regulate or to ban something which does not exist, then immediately, Russia, China and the U.S. will decide to withdraw from the engagement and the discussion,” he said.
The U.N. put the weapons on the agenda in informal meetings as far back as 2013, under the supervision of France. But little progress has been made, with the Convention on Conventional Weapons even failing to agree a working definition of LAWs.