Killer Robots

Mary Wareham, left, and Jody Williams, of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, with their mascot ‘David Wreckham’.

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BRATTLEBORO — Twenty-three years ago, Brattleboro native Jody Williams and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines received the Nobel Peace Prize for their work on an international treaty banning antipersonnel landmines.

Since then, Williams has been active in promoting human rights, pushing a ban on cluster bombs, leading fact finding delegations to Nicaragua and Honduras and the High Level Mission on Darfur, and serving as the senior editor of the annual

Landmine Monitor Report. And, for the past several years, Williams has been sounding the hew and cry about what she calls "killer robots," or machines designed to wage war with little or no human supervision.

"What human being thinks it is OK to give a machine the power to decide, algorithmically, who gets to live and who gets to die?" asked Williams, during a webinar hosted by the Windham World Affairs Council on Sept. 27. "If I am going to kill somebody in war, I should bear the weight of the decision to kill and not send it off to a machine."

Williams said the world is dangerously close to delegating authority to machines with the development of drone warfare. A drone operator, sometimes thousands of miles from where the drone is operating, is making decisions on when to fire a weapon to blast someone "to smithereens."

"That, in and of itself, is disgusting," said Williams. "Now imagine weapons with no human beings. A killer robot is that drone with no human being being involved in targeting."

This trend toward automated war led to the founding of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which is advocating for a preemptive ban on the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons.

Founded in 2013, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robot is a coalition of non-governmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Handicap International, the International Committee for Robot Arms Control and the Nobel Women's Initiative.

Williams said these types of weapons – aircraft, tanks, submersibles and even some as small as insects – are already in development.

"This is the next wave of war," she said.

But a preemptive ban would prevent these machines from being tested in conflict, said Williams.

"The goal is to not allow humans to delegate the decision of life and death over another human being to a machine," she said.

Williams said another pressing issue is the modernization of nuclear weapons.

"We don't need modernized nuclear weapons," she said. "We need to get rid of them."

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She urged people to join the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons if they are concerned about this new nuclear arms race.

"Action is the only thing that changes the world," she said. "Just tweeting something is not action for change. Get up off your collective butts and join an organization. If none of them speak to you, create one. Activism is not for the faint of heart. You have to own your space and act to see what you want to see in the world."

As for herself, Williams said, "I'm not special. I just care enough to take action to bring about change to make the world better for everyone, even people I do not like. That's what real change is."

However, she cautioned, things won't really change until the concept of national security is replaced by human security.

"If I was to ask if you are feeling secure in this COVID world," she said, "the first thing that comes to mind would not be 'Oh, my God, we need new weapons on their own that can kill people.' What comes to mind is when is this hell going to end and why did this country do such a bad job of dealing with COVID from the beginning?"

The discussion needs to be about providing adequate housing and a free education, access to health care, work that is dignified, and a living wage, as well as addressing climate change, Williams said.

"National security is the needs of the people themselves, not the needs of keeping the institutions of the state secure," she said.

Williams noted that 57 percent of the United States' discretionary budget "is spent on weapons, the military and war."

Because the State Department only gets 3 percent of the budget, said Williams, "The Pentagon is the agency of our government determining foreign policy."

Williams also urged people to vote for the Biden/Harris ticket. She said if people don't want to see patriotism hijacked to promote authoritarianism, "You have to not allow Mr. Trump and his people to have another term."

Upcoming Windham World Affairs Council lectures will be held on Zoom on Sundays from 4 to 5:30 p.m. To participate, registration is required on the WWAC website.

On Oct. 25, the Annual Galbraith Lecture will be a special pre-election discussion with Ambassador Peter Galbraith on "U.S. Standing in the World Today." On Dec. 6, "Global Priorities for a New Presidential Term" will feature global thinkers and local activists.

Bob Audette can be contacted at