Back to All Events

An Ontology of Autonomy for Autonomous Weapons Systems by Dr Heather Roff

  • Seminar Room G, Manor Road Building, Manor Road Oxford OX1 3UQ (map)

A light sandwich lunch is provided for seminar participants at 12:50. 

For the past three years the international community convened a series of informal meetings of experts under the auspices of the United Nation’s Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) to consider whether or not to preemptively ban lethal autonomous weapons systems under an additional protocol to the Convention.  The debate has circled the same set of concerns: what exactly lethal autonomous weapon systems (AWS) are and whether it is incumbent upon states to ban them before they are developed.  Without a definition states argue they cannot know what exactly it is they are supposed to ban. Yet after three years of expert testimony, there is no agreement on any meaningful definition. Diplomatic considerations are pressing, but I believe the source of this confusion is due to an antecedent and more profound concern, one that is inherently tied to the question of defining what constitutes an AWS. In plain terms, it is a concern with the authorization to make war and the subsequent delegation of this authority.  Until now, humans have been the sole agents authorized to make and to wage war, and questions of authorization and war have never been technologically dependent.  Rather, they have been moral considerations and not empirical ones.  I attempt to provide a theoretical framework for defining and classifying autonomous weapons systems.  By so doing, I argue the moral quandary over autonomous weapons has its roots in concerns over the delegation of a (moral) faculty: the authority to wage war.

Heather M. Roff is a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Relations and the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict at the University of Oxford. She is also a Research Scientist in the Global Security Initiative at Arizona State University, and a Cybersecurity Fellow and Future of War Fellow at New America in Washington, D.C. She received her PhD in 2010 from the University of Colorado at Boulder in Political Science, and she has held faculty positions at the United States Air Force Academy, the University of Waterloo and the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Dr. Roff's research interests pertain to the legal, political and normative questions pertaining to the development and deployment of emerging military technologies, such as autonomous weapons, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and robotics. She is currently writing a monograph on the strategic and normative implications of lethal autonomous weapons systems. She as written numerous academic journal articles on autonomous weapons, cybersecurity and war, as well as a monograph, Global Justice, Kant and the Responsibility to Protect (Routledge, 2013). She blogs for the Huffington Post, the Duck of Minerva, and has written for outlets like Wired, Slate, Defense One and various national newspapers.  She has testified twice on autonomous weapons to the United Nations Convention on Conventional Weapons, as well as providing testimony to the International Committee of the Red Cross on such systems.