Stop the arming of drones for the Bundeswehr – outlaw autonomous weapon systems!

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Public appeal by scientists of artificial intelligence and computer science.

Dear leaders of the SPD, Bündnis 90 die Grünen, and FDP, dear negotiators of the German coalition negotiations, dear fellow citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany, as scientists working on artificial intelligence and computer science and as citizens we appeal to politicians and the public to stop the arming of drones for the Bundeswehr for humanitarian as well as security reasons.

As scientists working on artificial intelligence (AI) and computer science, we strongly oppose autonomous weapon systems, as do many thousands of our international colleagues. A machine “sees” a human being only as a long list of numbers, and does not “understand” the value of a human life. It cannot “comprehend” the far-reaching implications of its “decisions” – the killing of humans should never be automated based on algorithmic formulas. Such dehumanization of life and death decision-making by autonomous weapons systems must be outlawed worldwide! Today’s AI algorithms are nowhere near as objective and robust as they often appear to be. In real situations, with real data, algorithms can be unreliable, flawed, and opaque. Social injustices and biases are often reinforced by algorithms.

The revolution in artificial intelligence has made algorithm-driven warfare possible in the foreseeable future. To date, there are no national or international control regimes in place to curb this development, which is already taking place.

The weaponization of drones makes autonomous weaponry possible in principle and represents a critical turning point. The scientific and technological state of the art is now so advanced that any modern remotely piloted armed drone is only a software update away from being a fully autonomous lethal weapon without proof! Weaponized drones must be avoided now, before the progression toward fully autonomous weapons can no longer be stopped. In the public discourse on the arming of drones, the danger of a creeping automation of warfare has so far been insufficiently reflected – this debate must be held! The arming of drones crosses a critical threshold towards the automation of warfare: towards the development of weapons whose attack on humans is automated, without further human decision, supervision or possibility of abort. The urgently needed international outlawing of fully autonomous lethal weapons, which the previous German government has also taken up, must therefore include armed drones.

Already the use of human-controlled armed drones has lowered the threshold for the use of military force and further delimited war; drone attacks take place permanently and often without a declaration of war. The technological upgrade with armed drones has made it easier for militarily and technologically superior states like the United States to carry out extrajudicial killings that almost exclusively target people of color. Autonomous weapons would increase the possibility of global surveillance and killings of people defined as potential threats, removing control over their elimination not only from legal norms but also increasingly from human influence.

At the same time, the increasing automation of armed drones exacerbates the risk of military confrontation by states equipped with such weapons – if an autonomous weapons system is activated as a result of a real military incident or a false alarm, military escalation will be impossible to stop. This threatens to exacerbate global instability.

These scenarios are not a distant dystopia – this June, the United Nations announced in a report that a drone is believed to have carried out a fully autonomous attack in Libya. The United Nations could not confirm beyond any doubt whether this attack was actually carried out by a fully autonomous weapon. This incident is exemplary: with a proliferation of armed drones, the global expansion of autonomous weapons beyond even the technologically leading states is foreseeable and so far can neither be controlled nor stopped. The non-arming of drones can be decided politically and controlled at the international level, but the creeping development towards more and more autonomous weapons based on increasingly complex algorithms is a non-transparent process that largely escapes the possibility of public-democratic, let alone international, control.

Given the rapid development of artificial intelligence, the development and proliferation of modern armed drones is the dam burst for a global arms race toward autonomous warfare that can and must be stopped now. Solving the pressing issues of the future makes global civilian cooperation for security and human development indispensable: a fraction of the resources currently used for the technologization and automation of war would be sufficient to comprehensively promote security and human development on a global scale. The “Future Combat Air System” alone, a combat system based on semi-autonomous armed drone swarms planned by the French, German and Spanish governments by 2040, is expected to cost up to 500 billion euros. The cost of this project alone is double the funds that would be needed annually to end hunger worldwide, according to the United Nations. Stopping the proliferation of armed drones and their international disarmament are imperative for the realization of both social and political human rights, for a humane future on this planet.

We therefore appeal to the representatives of the parties in the German Bundestag, to the scientific community and to civil society: stop the arming of drones for the Bundeswehr. Advocate for an immediate halt to the proliferation of armed drones and for a ban on armed drones and autonomous weapons systems.

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