February 28, 2023

Reining in Autonomous Weapons. Impact on Military Innovation – An Estonian Perspective

Sarah Holmlund / Scanpix
3D rendering of a futuristic robot police or soldier holding a gun surrounded by smoke.
3D rendering of a futuristic robot police or soldier holding a gun surrounded by smoke.

Robotic platforms, artificial intelligence, and weapons with autonomous functions have become central to defence innovation. Major powers rely on emerging technologies to achieve and maintain strategic advantages over their potential adversaries. Yet more developed AI-based solutions produce not only more sophisticated technologies but also a not-less-sophisticated set of problems.

Concerns about the impact of lethal autonomous weapon systems, their humanitarian ‘side effects,’ and compliance with international humanitarian law have sparked a vigorous debate at multilateral for a, as well as within countries and alliances. Formal deliberations by the Group of Governmental Experts in the framework of the U.N. Convention on Conventional Weapons helped shape some common understanding of LAWS. Demand for and prospects of some new international regulation, however, remained the biggest challenge and revealed friction among nations.

A legally binding international agreement on LAWS is politically unrealistic, potentially unnecessary, and technically difficult to achieve. Therefore, other regulatory avenues should be explored by like-minded nations who aspire to responsible military innovation.

Democratic societies are sensitive to public disapproval, which has already had legal, political, and economic repercussions on emerging technologies and halted military modernization. Civil society’s backlash to the ‘killer robots’ and ‘unreined’ AI now threatens to strangle defence innovation in the EU. Public perceptions, together with proposed regulations — which may stretch as far as an international ban — could cripple Estonia’s defence industry. By giving autocratic regimes a competitive edge, it would affect the security environment globally. As a technologically friendly and sensibly optimistic society, Estonia has a lot to contribute to developing a strategy to communicate this message.

Emerging and disruptive technologies are an integral part of the strategic competition, and the right balance should be found between ethically driven policies and overregulating innovation.

Download and read: Reining In Autonomous Weapons. Impact on Military Innovation (PDF)