11 August 2023
In the context of its study on the human rights implications of new and emerging technologies in the military domain, the United Nations Human Rights Council Advisory Group invited our Head of Research and Policy Studies Dr Erica Harper to provide insights and views on this issue – based on research conducted at the Geneva Academy.
In her intervention, Dr Harper shed light on military technologies’ potential impact on human rights and addressed the risks associated with the cross-application of these technologies and the related need for regulation.
Dr Harper started her intervention by debunking some myths and misconceptions related to these technologies, notably the perception that they are entirely novel. Many have been in development for decades, with militaries experimenting with neuro-weapons dating back to the 1950s. The true innovation lies in the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning into existing military tools, exponentially expanding their capabilities and potential harm. This accelerated integration of AI has thrust the issue into the global spotlight due to its rapid pace.
Dr Harper also stressed the misconception that these technologies are solely developed for military purposes, underlying their extensive borrowing and repurposing across various sectors. For instance, neurotechnology initially designed for therapeutic purposes in medical settings has evolved to have military applications, and predictive algorithms, originally developed for different contexts, have found utility in automating risk assessment and building autonomous weapons systems.
Interestingly, Dr Harper stressed that the main drivers behind these technologies' development have shifted from the military itself to private companies – a shift that led to a significant reduction in costs, making military-grade devices like drones and TCDS headsets more accessible and affordable. However, this accessibility has inadvertently opened doors for non-state armed groups and private military and security companies to acquire and employ these technologies.
Dr Harper also underscored that these technologies are not only being embraced by the military and non-state actors but are also increasingly integrated into law enforcement and government surveillance efforts. The risks associated with these technologies falling into the wrong hands are very real, potentially leading to a multitude of ethical and human rights violations.
Dr Harper underlined that the heart of the issue revolves around the regulation of these rapidly advancing technologies – stressing the complexities around regulation given the rapid evolution of these technologies and the challenges of distinguishing between benign and weaponized applications.
She suggested that effective regulation requires a multifaceted approach involving various stakeholders and dimensions: human rights considerations, AI law, trade controls, private sector self-regulation, and supra-national oversight bodies – all deemed necessary to ensure responsible development and application of these technologies. Dr Harper emphasized the importance of human rights, as a guiding principle in these discussions.
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