04 September 2020


'Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems: Translating Geek Speak for Lawyers' by Linell A. Letendre in (2020) 96 International Law Studies begins 

 An engineer, a commander, and a lawyer all met at the pearly gates of heaven. Their only entry requirement was that they be able to speak the same language regarding lethal autonomous weapon systems . . . . Query: How long did it take them to pass through the gates? 

While the above sounds like the beginning of a trite joke, the sad and unfortunate aspect is that all too often lawyers’ eyes glaze over as engineers begin speaking about reliability, control theory, and open architecture design, while engineers tune-out at the mere mention of international law principles and go into a comatose state when the Latin phrases begin. However, with the growing utilization of robotics and autonomous systems on the battle-field, lawyers and engineers must learn to speak the same language — or at the very least, understand the basics of the other’s world. 

Why the imperative? Why can engineers not just keep designing systems Ibased on operator requirements and military lawyers not just keep evaluating the legality of the weapons systems once the systems are built? The simple answer is that autonomy is different. Advances in autonomy have the potential to move the human warrior further and further out of the control loop and to leave more and more decisions up to the machine. The catch is that the laws of war are to be assessed and implemented by people, not machines. Translating the legal requirements for the use of force cannot be an after-thought in the development of autonomous weapon systems; it must be built-in from the beginning. The better engineers understand international law requirements and lawyers understand the technical limitations of autonomous systems, the more likely we are to develop lethal autonomous weapon systems that comply with the law. 

To further such understanding, this article demystifies robotics and autonomy for lawyers. While a lawyer will not be qualified to build a weapons system after reading this article, he or she should at least be able to follow a conversation surrounding robotics and ask intelligent questions of robotics engineers and the operators. The article starts with the basics by defining robots, autonomy, and operator (warfighter) terminology for unmanned platforms. Then, it explores how robotic and autonomous systems work by explaining control systems and robotic learning and reasoning. After most sections, the article provides a general overview of the topic discussed and explains why it is important for lawyers to understand the key issues related to this topic. As such, there are a series of questions to aid lawyers in asking relevant and meaningful questions of robotic engineers. 

Returning to the opening question, were there not two other people besides the lawyer at the pearly gates? Yes, the engineer and the commander joined the lawyer at the heavenly gates. A companion article, 'Lethal Autonomous Weapons: Translating Legal Jargon for Engineers', provides an overview of the international law governing the use of autonomous weapon systems in combat. Similar to this article, 'Translating Legal Jargon for Engineers' provides questions that an engineer may use to clarify design specifications with lawyers during the development of autonomous weapon systems. The combination of these two articles provides a necessary foundation for lawyers and engineers to understand autonomous weapon systems. 

The remaining person, the commander, is the individual with the most at stake in ensuring that this conversation between lawyers and engineers occurs. Even as human operators are pushed further from decision loops in autonomous systems, the commander will remain legally (and at times criminally) responsible for the proper employment of these weapon systems in combat. Thus, commanders should strive to pull engineers and lawyers into the same room when developing requirements for future autonomous systems and force a dialogue between them. To encourage meaningful dialogue, commanders should review the suggested list of questions that a military lawyer could ask a robotics engineer and vice versa. If a commander hears these types of questions, he or she can have confidence that all the parties to the critical determination of whether an autonomous weapon system is legal (either per se or in its employment) are speaking the same language.