There among the sailboats (once a game-changing military technology themselves), smart minds from law, philosophy and engineering debated trends in cyber-warfare, military robotics, non-lethal weaponry and human augmentation. Chatham House rules apply so I can’t and won’t attribute comments to anyone in particular, and my own human subjects procedures prevent me from doing more than reporting in the broadest strokes about the discussions that took place in my research, foreign policy writing or blog posts. Nor does my research methodology allow me to say what I personally think on the specific issue of whether or not autonomous lethal weapons should be banned entirely, which is the position taken by the International Committee on Robot Arms Control and Article 36.org, or simply regulated somehow, which seems to be the open question on the CETMONS-AWTG agenda, or promoted as a form of uber-humanitarian warfare, which is a position put forward by Ronald Arkin.*
I spent last week doing “field research” – that is, participant-observation in one of the several communities of practice whose work I’m following as part of my new book project on global norm development. In this case, the norm in question is governance over developments in lethal autonomous robotics, and the community of practice is individuals loosely associated with the Consortium on Emerging Technologies, Military Operations and National Security. CETMONS is an epistemic network comprised of six ethics centers whose Autonomous Weapons Thrust Group collaboratively published an important paper on the subject last year and whose members regularly get together in subset to debate legal and ethical questions relating to emerging military tech. This particular event was a sponsored by the Lincoln Center on Applied Ethics, which heads CETMONS and held at the Chautauqua Institution in New York.
However, Chatham House rules do allow me to speak in generalities about what I took away from the event, and my methodology allows me to ruminate on what I’m learning as I observe new norms percolating in ways that don’t bleed too far into advocacy for one side or the other. I can also dance with some of the policy debates adjacent to the specific norm I’m studying. And I can play with the wider questions regarding law, armed conflict and emerging technologies that arise in contexts like this.
*Not, at least, until my case study is completed. For now, regarding that debate itself, I’m “observing” rather than staking out prescriptive positions. My “participation” – in meetings like these or in the blogosphere or anywhere else these issues are discussed – is limited to posing questions, playing devil’s advocate, writing empirically about the nature of ethical argument in this area, exploring empirical arguments underlying ethical claims on both sides of that debate, clarifying the applicable law as a set of social facts, and reporting objectively on various advocacy efforts.