Pros and Cons of Autonomous Weapons Systems (with Oren Etzioni)

  • Amitai Etzioni
Part of the Library of Public Policy and Public Administration book series (LPPP, volume 11)


As technology progresses and autonomous weapons increasingly become a reality rather than mere science fiction, an ethical debate has developed surrounding the use of such weapons, which operate with little or no human oversight. Some view the use of autonomous weapons as morally preferable (not to mention strategically advantageous), as they can be used in place of human combatants. Others oppose their use for moral and legal reasons. This chapter analyzes arguments on both sides of the question and discusses challenges to limiting and defining autonomous weapons. The chapter acknowledges that some form of autonomy in weapon systems is here to stay, but seeks to limit potential catastrophes by recommending the adoption of an international agreement to ban fully autonomous weapons—those which cannot be recalled—as a first step toward addressing the issues raised.


  1. Ackerman, E. 2014. U.S. Army considers replacing thousands of soldiers with robots. IEEE Spectrum.Google Scholar
  2. Adams, T.K. 2002. Future warfare and the decline of human decisionmaking. Parameters 31 (4): 57–71.Google Scholar
  3. Anderson, K., and M. Waxman. 2013a. Law and ethics for autonomous weapon systems: why a ban won't work and how the laws of war can. Stanford University, Hoover Institution (Jean Perkins Task Force on National Security and Law Essay Series).Google Scholar
  4. ———. 2013b. Law and ethics for robot soldiers. Policy Review.Google Scholar
  5. Arkin, R.C. 2010. The case for ethical autonomy in unmanned systems. Journal of Military Ethics 9 (4): 332–341.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Autonomous Weapons. 2015. An open letter from AI & robotics researchers.
  7. Byrnes, M. 2014. Nightfall: Machine autonomy in air-to-air combat. Air and Space Power Journal 28 (3): 48–75.Google Scholar
  8. Clapper, J., J. Young, J. Cartwright, and J. Grimes. 2007. Unmanned systems roadmap 2007–2032. Office of the Secretary of Defense.Google Scholar
  9. Davison, N. 2009. ‘Non-lethal’ weapons. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. DeSon, J.S. 2015. Automating the right stuff – the hidden ramifications of ensuring autonomous aerial weapon systems comply with international humanitarian law. Air Force Law Review 72: 85–122.Google Scholar
  11. Docherty, B. 2012. Losing humanity: The case against killer robots. Human Rights Watch.Google Scholar
  12. DOD (Department of Defense). 2011. Unmanned systems integrated roadmap FY2011–2036.Google Scholar
  13. ———. 2012. Directive number 3000.09, Subject: Autonomy in weapons systems.Google Scholar
  14. DSB (Defense Science Board). 2012. Task force report: The role of autonomy in DoD systems.Google Scholar
  15. Etzioni, A., and O. Etzioni. 2016. Keeping AI legal. Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment & Technology Law 19 (1): 133–164.Google Scholar
  16. Francis, D. 2013. How a new army of robots can cut the defense budget. The Fiscal Times.Google Scholar
  17. Heyns, C. 2013. Report of the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, U.N. Human Rights Council, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/23/47.Google Scholar
  18. ICRAC (International Committee for Robot Arms Control). 2013. Scientists’ call to ban autonomous lethal robots.
  19. ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross). 2014. Autonomous weapons systems: technical, military, legal, and humanitarian aspects.Google Scholar
  20. Lin, P., G. Bekey, K. Abney. 2008. Autonomous military robotics: Risk, ethics, and design (prepared for U.S. Department of Navy, Office of Naval Research),
  21. Lucas, G.R., Jr. 2013. Engineering, ethics & industry: The moral challenges of lethal autonomy. In Killing by remote control: The ethics of an unmanned military, ed. B. Strawser, 211–228. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Marchant, G.E., B. Allenby, R. Arkin, E.T. Barrett, J. Borenstein, L.M. Gaudet, et al. 2011. International governance of autonomous military robots. Columbia Science & Technology Law Review 12: 272–315.Google Scholar
  23. Marks, P. 2012. Iron dome rocket smasher set to change Gaza conflict. New Scientist.Google Scholar
  24. MK 15 – Phalanx close-in weapons system (CIWS). n.d.. U.S. Navy fact sheet.
  25. Noone, G.P., and D.C. Noone. 2015. The debate over autonomous weapons systems. Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law 47 (1): 25–35.Google Scholar
  26. Pryer, D.A. 2013. The rise of the machines: Why increasingly “perfect” weapons help perpetuate our wars and endanger our nation. Military Review 93 (2): 14–24.Google Scholar
  27. Reeves, S., and W. Johnson. 2014. Autonomous weapons: Are you sure these are killer robots? Can we talk about it? The Army Lawyer (April): 25–31.Google Scholar
  28. Scharre, P., and M. Horowitz. 2015. An introduction to autonomy in weapons systems (Working Paper). Center for New American Security.Google Scholar
  29. Schelling, T.C. 1966. Arms and influence. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Schmitt, M. 2013. Autonomous weapon systems and international humanitarian law: A reply to the critics. Harvard National Security Journal Features.Google Scholar
  31. Sharkey, N. 2012. Saying ‘no!’ to lethal autonomous targeting. Journal of Military Ethics 9 (4): 369–383.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Sparrow, R. 2007. Killer robots. Journal of Applied Philosophy 24 (1): 62–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Thurnher, J. 2012. Legal implications of fully autonomous targeting. Joint Force Quarterly 67 (4): 77–84.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

This chapter is licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license and indicate if changes were made.

The images or other third party material in this chapter are included in the chapter’s Creative Commons license, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the chapter’s Creative Commons license and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder.

Authors and Affiliations

  • Amitai Etzioni
    • 1
  1. 1.The George Washington UniversityWashington, DCUSA

Personalised recommendations