Autonomous agents and command responsibility

Authored by: Jack McDonald

Routledge Handbook of War, Law and Technology

Print publication date:  May  2019
Online publication date:  May  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138084551
eBook ISBN: 9781315111759
Adobe ISBN:


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How will the advent of autonomous systems change the military? Stories abound of the encroachment of autonomous machines on the day-to-day lives of citizens in advanced industrial societies. Technology companies plan to market autonomous cars to consumers, while autonomous haulage systems are already in place in the resource extraction industry. 1 In the estimation of some experts, machines will soon be able to replace humans in many professions in the near future, including military professionals. In each industry, we expect significant changes in the workplace, but the prospect of such change in military affairs worries many technical and legal experts. 2 Thus, just over 25 years since Manuel DeLanda highlighted the implications of autonomous weaponry in War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, 3 the prospect of states fielding ‘killer robots’ has sparked an international campaign to pre-emptively ban autonomous weapon systems. 4 This campaign faces numerous challenges, notably a lack of traction with powerful states in the international system. 5 Despite the uncertain prospects for pre-emptive bans or regulation of autonomous weapon systems, the development of autonomous systems, and their use by militaries, raises numerous questions, not least how states can employ lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) and still comply with the law of armed conflict, and the moral requirements of the just war tradition. This is one of the key challenges that autonomous weapons systems highlight: how will the introduction of non-human agents affect the concept of command responsibility?

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