In a new piece up at Foreign Affairs on the killer robot debate, I attempt to distinguish between what we know and what we can only speculate about around the ethics / legality of autonomous weapons. The gist:

Both camps have more speculation than facts on their side… [But] the bigger problem isn’t that some claims in this debate are open to question on empirical grounds, rather that so many of them simply cannot be evaluated empirically, since there is no data or precedent with which to weigh discrimination and proportionality against military necessity.

So, instead of resting on discrimination and proportionality principles as with earlier weapons ban campaigns, the lethal machines debate is converging around two very different questions. First, in situations of uncertainty, does the burden of proof rest on governments, to show that emerging technologies meet humanitarian standards, or on global civil society, to show that they don’t? And second, even if autonomous systems could one day be shown to be useful and lawful in utilitarian terms, is a deeper underlying moral principle at stake in outsourcing matters of life or death to machines?

The disarmament camp argues yes to both; techno-optimists argue no. To some extent these are questions of values, but each can also be empirically evaluated by the social realities of international normative precedent. In each case, those cautioning against the untrammeled development of unmanned military technology are on firmer ground.

Read the whole thing here

Open Democracy has also published a more detailed version of my survey results on which this argument is based.