New Zealand Government pushes for international ban on 'killer robots'

Phil Twyford
There are legal, ethical and security risks to leaving autonomous weapons unchecked. Photo credit: Getty Images

The New Zealand Government has committed to efforts to ban and regulate autonomous weapons systems (AWS), also known as killer robots, Phil Twyford has announced.

The Disarmament and Arms Control Minister said the Government was looking to engage internationally on the issue and establish new, legally-binding prohibitions, rules and limits on their use.

While there is no single definition of killer robots, "they are generally understood to be weapons systems that, once activated, can select and engage targets without further human intervention", Twyford said.

"While the evidence suggests fully autonomous weapons systems are not yet being deployed on the battlefield, the prospect of a future where the decision to take a human life is delegated to machines is abhorrent and inconsistent with New Zealand's interests and values."

This means Aotearoa is "strongly placed" to work with other nations, the minister said. The output could include a convention or a treaty that comes about via the existing multilateral talks underway at the United Nations in Geneva.

"This policy also makes clear, however, that New Zealand will remain open to other opportunities to make progress, including by building and working with a coalition of states, experts and others."

The minister said the country had a proud record of prioritising humanitarian concerns and had successfully advocated for legal rules on such issues in the past.

There is increasing awareness amongst international bodies like the UN and the Red Cross that the use of killer robots raises serious legal, ethical and security risks, Twyford said.

"Our policy shows it is possible to address these risks while remaining consistent with our defence and security interests, including maintaining interoperability with key defence partners, and ensuring our tech sector remains able to pursue the opportunities the peaceful development of AI presents," he said.

Autonomous weapons systems are discussed by the UN under its Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects, with the next round of discussions scheduled for December.

"The idea of a future where the decision to take a human life is delegated to machines is abhorrent and now we'll work with friends and allies to make sure this never comes to pass," Twyford said.