Noel Sharkey, the chairman of the Inter­na­tional Com­mittee for Robot Arms Con­trol, argued his case against killer robots last Friday at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, saying that autonomous machines should not be allowed to make the deci­sion to kill people on the battlefield.

We’re on a course toward fully automating war­fare,” Sharkey warned in a two-​​hour lec­ture on the polit­ical, eth­ical, and legal impli­ca­tions of robotic weapons. “Who in his right mind would auto­mate the deci­sion to kill?”

Later in the day, Sharkey mod­er­ated a panel dis­cus­sion of drones and killer robots. The pan­elists com­prised Max Abrahms, an assis­tant pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence at North­eastern; Denise Garcia, a member of ICRAC and an asso­ciate pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence and inter­na­tional affairs at North­eastern; and Patrick B. Johnson, a polit­ical sci­en­tist at the RAND Cor­po­ra­tion, a non­profit global policy think tank.

The two-​​part event—the second in a new series titled “Con­tro­ver­sial Issues in Secu­rity Studies”—was spon­sored by the North­eastern Human­i­ties Center and the Depart­ment of Polit­ical Sci­ence. Garcia orga­nized the pro­gram with the sup­port of Gerard Loporto, LA’73, and his family.

Sharkey, for his part, is a pre­em­i­nent expert in robotics and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence. As a spokesperson for the Cam­paign to Stop Killer Robots, he trav­eled to Geneva ear­lier this month to con­vince the United Nations’ Con­ven­tion on Con­ven­tional Weapons to ban killer robots before they’re devel­oped for use on the bat­tle­field. Fully autonomous weapons, which do not yet exist, would have the ability to select and then destroy mil­i­tary tar­gets without human intervention.

The rise of the machines is a hot-​​button issue in Wash­ington. In response to crit­i­cism of the administration’s use of combat drones, Pres­i­dent Obama deliv­ered a speech at the National Defense Uni­ver­sity in May, promising that the U.S. would only use drones against a “con­tin­uing and immi­nent threat against the Amer­ican people.

The ter­ror­ists we are after target civil­ians and the death toll from their acts of ter­rorism against Mus­lims dwarfs any esti­mate of civilian casu­al­ties from drone strikes,” he added. “So doing nothing is not an option.”

In his lec­ture last Friday, Sharkey laid out his argu­ment against the autonomous Terminator-​​like weapons. He began by noting that their use could vio­late at least two prin­ci­ples of inter­na­tional human­i­tarian law—the prin­ciple of dis­tinc­tion, which posits that bat­tle­field weapons must be able to dis­tin­guish between com­bat­ants and civil­ians; and the prin­ciple of pro­por­tion­ality, which posits that attacks on mil­i­tary objects must not cause exces­sive loss of civilian life in rela­tion to the fore­see­able mil­i­tary advantage.

Of the prin­ciple of pro­por­tion­ality, he said, “You can kill civil­ians pro­vided it’s pro­por­tional to direct mil­i­tary advan­tage, but that requires an awful lot of thinking and careful years of plan­ning. We must not let robots do that under any circumstance.”

Sharkey also cen­sured the CIA’s use of the nation’s cur­rent fleet of combat drones in coun­tries with which the U.S. is not at war. “I would like to ask the CIA to stop killing civil­ians in the name of col­lat­eral damage,” Sharkey pleaded. “I really don’t like seeing chil­dren being killed, because there’s no excuse for that whatsoever.”

In his opening remarks, Stephen Flynn, the director of Northeastern’s Center for Resilience Studies, artic­u­lated the dif­fi­cul­ties of rapidly assim­i­lating new war­fare tech­nology. “Tech­nology always out­paces our ability to sort out what the guide­lines are,” he explained. “What could be tac­ti­cally effec­tive could also be strate­gi­cally harmful.

Issues of policy, tech­nology, and morality are all in play, but they don’t lend them­selves to slo­gans or bumper stickers,” he added. “We won’t have effec­tive con­ver­sa­tions unless we delve into these issues.”

In the Q-​​and-​​A ses­sion, more than a dozen stu­dents heeded Flynn’s advice by asking Sharkey sev­eral tough ques­tions. The former pres­i­dent of the North­eastern Col­lege Democ­rats asked Sharkey what stu­dents could do to stop the devel­op­ment of killer robots, prompting Sharkey to encourage stu­dents to start a youth move­ment to raise aware­ness of their dangers.

Another stu­dent asked Sharkey whether automating war­fare would decrease the human death toll. “I don’t mind pro­tecting sol­diers on the ground, but [the use of killer robots] might lead to more bat­tles than you want to be in,” he explained. “If they’re increasing ter­rorism, then who are they really protecting?”