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UN meets to weigh fate of 'killer robots'

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Although real-life versions of “RoboCop” don’t exist, diplomats attending a United Nations meeting in Geneva Tuesday urged the adoption of new international laws that could govern the use of “killer robots” if the technology becomes a reality someday. (AP)

Could the age of gun-toting “killer robots” be over before it even begins?

Although real-life versions of “RoboCop” and the “Terminator” don’t exist, diplomats attending a United Nations meeting in Geneva Tuesday urged the adoption of new international laws that could govern the use of “killer robots” if the technology becomes a reality someday.

At the first meeting devoted to the subject, representatives began trying to define the limits and responsibilities of so-called lethal autonomous weapons systems that could go beyond human-directed drones.

The tone of the four-day gathering was set by Michael Moeller, acting head of the U.N.'s European headquarters in Geneva, who urged the delegates to take "bold action" by adopting pre-emptive new laws to ensure there is always a person directing the weapons.

"All too often international law only responds to atrocities and suffering once it has happened," said Moeller, a Danish diplomat, according to The Associated Press. "You have the opportunity to take pre-emptive action and ensure that the ultimate decision to end life remains firmly under human control."

Semi-autonomous weapons already exist in the Korean Peninsula, where South Korea has deployed machine-gun robots outside the demilitarized zone with the North, the Wall Street Journal reports. Israel’s Defense Forces have also deployed robotic guns on some of its borders.

On the eve of the U.N. meeting, Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic released a report arguing against the use of “killer robots,” which they envision could be used on the battlefield or by law enforcement agencies.

The 26-page report, entitled “Shaking the Foundations: The Human Rights Implications of Killer Robots,” found that “fully autonomous weapons would threaten rights and principles under international law as fundamental as the right to life, the right to a remedy, and the principle of dignity,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

“Fully autonomous weapons could be prone to killing people unlawfully because the weapons could not be programmed to handle every situation,” Human Rights Watch added. “According to roboticists, there is little prospect that these weapons would possess human qualities, such as judgment, that facilitate compliance with the right to life in unforeseen situations.”

The report also raises concerns about how fully autonomous weapons could be held accountable for their actions under criminal and civil law.

Delegates from many of the nations at the meeting said existing laws won't cover future weapons that could decide on targets without human intervention.

Brazil's Ambassador Pedro Motto Pinto Coelho said Tuesday that the automation of the battlefield seems inevitable, but it isn't a new phenomenon, and "the fascination produced by technology shall not prevent us from raising relevant questions about the convenience and consequences of our future choices."

U.S. diplomat and legal adviser Stephen Townley cautioned the meeting against trying to "pre-judge" the uses of emerging technologies.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.