Critical Read

Who's responsible for the autonomous killer robots?

Mind the Gap report cover

What: A report from Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School's International Human Rights Clinic on the legal, moral and practical concerns regarding fully autonomous weapons.

Why: The report's subtitle, "The lack of accountability for killer robots," suggests science fiction, but the authors argue that "technology is moving in [that] direction, and precursors are already in use or development" -- pointing to automated defense systems like Israel's Iron Dome and the U.S. Phalanx and C-RAM.

Fully autonomous weapons, however, are all but incapable of distinguishing between lawful and unlawful targets as required by international humanitarian law. It is unlikely that either commanders overseeing the weapons or the programmers and manufacturers who developed them could be held legally liable if an autonomous system illegally killed noncombatants. And then there's the concern of an arms race that could put such weapons in the hands of those with little regard for the law.

Granted, not many IT professionals will be managing battlebots anytime soon. And as the report makes clear, the author's concerns of civil accountability would be all but moot for U.S. military personnel and contractors thanks to existing immunity provisions. But the questions are interesting ones, and have broader relevance as systems of all sorts grow increasingly autonomous.

Verbatim: "Existing mechanisms for legal accountability are ill suited and inadequate to address the unlawful harms fully autonomous weapons might cause. These weapons have the potential to commit criminal acts—unlawful acts that would constitute a crime if done with intent—for which no one could be held responsible."

Full report: Read the whole thing here.

About the Author

Troy K. Schneider is editor-in-chief of FCW and GCN.

Prior to joining 1105 Media in 2012, Schneider was the New America Foundation’s Director of Media & Technology, and before that was Managing Director for Electronic Publishing at the Atlantic Media Company. The founding editor of, Schneider also helped launch the political site in the mid-1990s, and worked on the earliest online efforts of the Los Angeles Times and Newsday. He began his career in print journalism, and has written for a wide range of publications, including The New York Times,, Slate, Politico, National Journal, Governing, and many of the other titles listed above.

Schneider is a graduate of Indiana University, where his emphases were journalism, business and religious studies.

Click here for previous articles by Schneider, or connect with him on Twitter: @troyschneider.


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