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Artificial Intelligence in Autonomous Weapon Systems


Cyber space, the fifth warfare domain, is benefitting from technological advancements and already accommodating Artificial Intelligence (AI) as its essential part. Enhanced by machine learning capabilities and AI decision making potential, autonomous military systems have been presented as highly efficient new generation weapons ready to replace conventional armaments and human combatants.

Cyber physical weapon systems, ranging from self-targeting missiles to self-learning ground vehicles are boosting covert military offensive capabilities increasing heated discussions and tensions between nations. The AI cyber arms race, escalated by super powers competing for global dominance, is supported by multi-billion-dollar investments into state-of-the-art technologies and leading research institutions. Further uncontrollable AI-based military technology development will expand the threat landscape with self-replicating cyber weapons and autonomous offense.

The chapter reviews the AI impact on autonomy and its major criteria, explores cyber vulnerabilities in autonomous technologies, highlights critical issues of the AI use in AWS, deliberates on incorporation of ethical principles into development of technologies, reveals legal complications and consequences of AI arms race, forecasts future challenges. It also provides some potential crisis scenarios.

Current research arguments that the generated neural networks and machine learning algorithms, being of complex nature, still remain unpredictable, unreliable and even dangerous when fully autonomous. Joint global action, legally bounding regulations and internationally coordinated research are the major solutions to harness and revert the emerging existential danger.

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Fig. 1


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    Quoted after Cellan-Jones, Rory (2014).

  2. 2.

    Autonomy, Cambridge Dictionary,

  3. 3.

    Official website at

  4. 4.

    Neural Network Libraries by Sony,

  5. 5.

    Apache MXNet, library for deep learning,

  6. 6.

    Quoted from Vincent (2018).

  7. 7.

    See (BBC 2016).

  8. 8.

    Aristotle as quoted in Partridge and Hussain (1992).

  9. 9.

    SIPRI databases,

  10. 10.

    Close-In Weapons System.

  11. 11.

    The next paradigm shift: AI-driven Cyber-Attacks, DarkTrace, 2018,

  12. 12.

    MoD’s tests will send satnav haywire so take a road atlas, 6 June 2007,

  13. 13.

    Exploit – a constructed command or a software designed to take advantage of a flaw in a computer system (vulnerability), typically for malicious purposes, such as accessing system information, establishing remote command line interface, causing denial of service, etc.

  14. 14.

    US military F-18 launch Drone swarm in tests at China Lake, 2017,

  15. 15.

    China New Generation Plan (in Chinese), July 2017, at

  16. 16.

    Summary of the 2018 Department of Defence Artificial Intelligence Strategy, at

  17. 17.

    Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977, ICRC database, at

  18. 18.

    The Martens clause first appeared in the preamble to the 1899 Hague Convention on the Laws and Customs of War on Land, from the statement done by Fyodor Martens, the Russian delegate at the Hague Peace Conferences of 1899. It states that “Until a more complete code of the laws of war is issued, the High Contracting Parties think it right to declare that in cases not included in the Regulations adopted by them, populations and belligerents remain under the protection and empire of the principles of international law, as they result from the usages established between civilized nations, from the laws of humanity and the requirements of the public conscience”, at

  19. 19.

    Meeting of the Group of Governmental Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems Geneva, 9 to 13 April 2018,$file/2018_LAWSGeneralExchange_Germany-France.pdf

  20. 20.

    Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflict (Additional Protocol I or AP I) (adopted on 8 June 1977, entered into force on 7 December 1978), art 52(2).

  21. 21.

    Asilomar AI Principles, Future of Life Institute, 2017, at

  22. 22.

    United Nations Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) regulates weapons which may be deemed to be excessively injurious or to have indiscriminate effects, with Protocols I, II and III, opened for signature 10 April 1981, entered into force 2 December 1983, at

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    Top 10 Principles for Ethical Artificial Intelligence,

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    SyNAPSE Program Develops Advanced Brain-Inspired Chip, 8 July 2014,


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Abaimov, S., Martellini, M. (2020). Artificial Intelligence in Autonomous Weapon Systems. In: Martellini, M., Trapp, R. (eds) 21st Century Prometheus. Springer, Cham.

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