First NZ company stands against killer robots, fires at Government for weapon policy reform
A New Zealand robotics company has taken a moral stand against the "very real threat" of killer robots, signing its name alongside Elon Musk.
X-Craft Enterprises founder Philip Solaris inked the first New Zealand name on an open letter to the United Nations this week, calling for an international ban on the creation and use of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) - weaponised drones, tanks and robots that can target, shoot and kill without human control.
He said he signed it to put pressure on New Zealand's Government and politicians to "wake up" and realise the threat to humanity LAWS pose.
Solaris said he had seen what Israel's robotics companies were developing, and armed decision-making machines were a "spooky" reality.
"It is not far-fetched. It is very real … You do not actually have to be that high tech to cause a lot of damage."
International military have deployed weapons that have limited human control, but there are no reported fully autonomous weapons being used yet.
Solaris said the closest development was the Taranis, an unmanned drone for combat that flies and operates without human command. It was created by United Kingdom aviation technology companies for its military.
His decision to sign the letter came from his fear that war would soon become an arms race, and New Zealand was not exempt.
"This is a revolution in warfare. You are no longer limited to the amount of dead bodies that come home in the plane. If you are not worried about body count any more, you are more likely to wage a war."
The letter was released on Monday to kick off the 26th International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence held in Melbourne this week.
An organiser of the letter, University of New South Wales professor Toby Walsh, said he asked Solaris to sign it before it was released with 116 other robotics and artificial intelligence companies, eight of who were Australian. Walsh said Solaris originally "respectfully declined".
When contacted by Stuffthis week, Solaris said he was still weighing up whether or not to be the only New Zealand company to sign the letter.
He said doing so could "throw the baby out with the bath water" and make him a hypocrite if his company made autonomous drones for emergency rescue missions.
"[The technology] can save lives as much as it can destroy lives.
"It may be necessary to use autonomous systems to defend our country in the future."
Solaris said he felt an immense responsibility to make his industry's stance against LAWS known.
Following an interview with Stuff, Solaris decided to sign the letter. His reason: "We do need to have a serious debate about this issue. Ignoring it is not an option. It truly does have the potential to alter the world, and sooner than most think."
Founder of New Zealand commercial drone maker Aeronavics, Rob Brouwer, was not asked to sign the letter but said he definitely would if given the opportunity.
They are among many Kiwi's pushing for the Government to stand against killer robots. The woman co-ordinating the global Campaign To Stop Killer Robots from Washington, United States, is Wellingtonian Mary Wareham.
She said she was disappointed that New Zealand had not yet formed a national policy against LAWS like 19 other countries had.
Former foreign affairs minister Murray McCully told her it was being discussed in 2013. McCully was contacted for comment but did not respond.
Since 2014, a New Zealand disarmament representative has attended the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), and expressed concern for the ethical questions LAWS raise.
Three years on, no action has been taken here to ban them. Wareham said the campaign had hit a road block internationally.
Could New Zealand's name on the open letter be the nudge the Government needs to say it supports a pre-emptive ban on killer robots?
Peace Movement Aotearoa co-ordinator Edwina Hughes said X-Craft's stand was a small win, but one company calling for a ban was not enough.
Hughes said the Labour Party's disarmament policy supported a ban on killer robots, but the National Party had not mentioned its opinion on the issue.
She said the Government seemed more enthusiastic about banning LAWS in 2013 and had retreated from the debate as years passed and technology advanced.
Foreign affairs minister Gerry Brownlee said New Zealand had "stressed it's support for retaining human control over new types of weapons" during CCW discussions.
Brownlee did not give his opinion on LAWS, but said he welcomed "intensified discussion" on their use.
"It is a technically and legally challenging area which requires further discussion."
Solaris and Brouwer said they were not surprised that the Government had not made a public announcement either condemning or supporting LAWS.
Brouwer said most drone companies here were interested in agriculture or cinematography, not weaponry.
Solaris said the Government could be avoiding the debate because LAWS would be created and used in warfare regardless of New Zealand's opinion.
"I think the Government is aware that bad guys are going to do what they are going to do."
Hughes said that argument was not good enough and sidelined the moral and ethical issues of killer robots.
"Bad guys can get hold of anything, that should not stop states from prohibiting them."
Defence minister Mark Mitchell would not say whether he supported a ban on LAWS or whether the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) would use autonomous weapons. He deflected all questions to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
The Defence Technology Agency said it could not answer questions on behalf of the Government or NZDF.
- Sunday Star Times