Distinguishing autonomous from automatic weapons

My roundtable colleagues Paulo E. Santos and Monika Chansoria both argue for regulating rather than banning autonomous weapons. But they never define precisely what they would regulate. This is a troublesome oversight—anyone arguing for regulation of weapons or their actions ought to have a very clear idea what regulation entails.Autonomous weapons, according to the US Defense Department, are weapons that select a target and fire without intervention from a human operator. But what exactly does “select” mean? How about “intervention?” These questions are more subtle than they seem.“Select” could mean scanning a particular space for a sensor input—say, a radar signature or a facial image. But in that case the weapon is not selecting a target. Rather, it is hunting for a preselected target. A human has actually selected the…


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