On Thursday 7 September, the House of Lords Inquiry into AI in autonomous weapons will reconvene to continue to consider the use of artificial intelligence in weapon systems. The committee, which was established in December 2022, has been meeting on an almost weekly basis since the start of this year. Members of the committee have heard from academics, human rights advocates-including the UK Campaign to Stop Killer Robots-and those working in tech organisations. 

This week’s Inquiry session will see a government official speak to the committee for the first time. The Minister for Defence Procurement, James Cartlidge MP, will be providing evidence to the committee along with the Second Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence (MoD), James Lincoln, and Lieutenant General Tom Copinger-Symes CBE, Deputy Commander UK Strategic Command at MoD. The minister’s appearance before the committee comes the week before he is due to speak at the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI)-a biennial defence and security trade show-which is taking place in London from 12-15 September.

DSEI brings together the international defence community including governments, international military and armed forces and wider industry connecting the defence and security supply chain on a global scale. As AI becomes increasingly used in defence and governments maintain that it is a key technology that offers important strategic and technical advantages over adversaries, it is unsurprising that one of the themes of this year’s exhibition is Technology Innovation. The programme shows several sessions on data and AI will be taking place as part of this theme. 

Companies will be displaying and promoting cutting-edge products and services to military delegations, police and security departments and private security companies and speaking to potential buyers. As Lena Trabucco writes in her new report ‘International Humanitarian Law and Lethal Autonomous Weapons: Legal Consideration for Acquisition and Procurement’ there are legal considerations for acquiring and procuring autonomous weapon systems (AWS) (i.e. compliance with international law) and risks and considerations for the defence industry. In 2021, the Royal United Services Institute acknowledged that ‘highly autonomous weapon systems require new approaches to all stages of procurement and use to ensure compliance with international law.’ It is deeply concerning that these products and services which ‘change the relationship between people and technology by handing over life and death decision-making to machines’ may be being showcased. 

Committee members should ask the minister for confirmation that the UK Government has no plans to procure AWS when he appears before them on Thursday. And they should also inquire as to whether or not the risks and considerations of acquiring and procuring AWS have been identified and scrutinised. When asked by the Ada Lovelace Institute how they feel about AI, 71% of the public expressed great concern about autonomous weapons. In this context, an international legal treaty to prevent the automation of killing and keep meaningful human control over the use of force is the only way to draw clear lines and prevent unacceptable uses of advanced technologies in the use of force. Without this, any decisions on the procurement of new systems and uses will rest on shaky ground. 

The Prime Minister is eager for the UK to play a leading role in developing international regulation of AI. Although we saw promising developments this summer with the UK convening the first-ever session on AI at the UN Security Council, we are yet to see the UK demonstrate leadership on AWS-an issue which raises significant human rights concerns. 

The UK’s current position on AWS does not support the negotiation of a new international law to regulate and prohibit autonomous weapon systems. The UK is now lagging behind with over 90 countries having expressed their support and pushing for a treaty that would prohibit AWS that select targets and attack them with violent force without meaningful control. 

If the UK is serious about leadership it should seize the opportunity to catch-up in October, when a resolution will be tabled at  the UN General Assembly that will offer a way forward to break the current deadlock in international discussions on the regulation of AWS, by bringing them into this more inclusive forum. As well as supporting this resolution, all states, including the UK, should seek to push forward towards the negotiation of a treaty through the UN General Assembly urgently-the UN Secretary-General recently challenged countries to do so by 2026.