LIFE is often stranger than fiction. Whilst the idea of killer robots may seem like something out of Terminator, they already exist and are being increasingly used. A new era of warfare is upon us and we are woefully ill-prepared.

Last week, I had the privilege of joining Amnesty International and Stop Killer Robots for the launch of a new social media campaign #EscapeTheScan. The goal of the campaign is straightforward – to raise awareness amongst the general public on the dangers of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) and to encourage lawmakers around the world to work together to ban these weapons.

The premise of the filter is also deceptively simple – can you avoid being detected by the AI within 10 seconds? Escape and you live, fail and you’re eliminated.

Spoiler alert: you can’t escape, much like in the real world. More terrifyingly, you would likely not even have 10 seconds to act – the algorithms would kick in, the 1s and 0s would whir and your details would be processed for elimination. Even though it is only a filter, it was disconcerting to see the process unfold in real time if you were the target of LAWS, knowing that if you were targeted, you would have little to no chance of escape.

It is an important and timely campaign. Earlier this year, the UN Security Council published a report which demonstrated that LAWS had been used in Libya’s Civil War to devastating effect since forces “were neither trained nor motivated to defend against the effective use of this new technology and usually retreated in disarray”.

Last week, the Australian military also announced a foray into the world of LAWS when they announced it had contracted technology firm GaardTech to supply Jaeger-C unmanned combat vehicles featuring both anti-tank and anti-personnel capabilities. The accompanying video footage demonstrates how these robots “swarm” a target using a range of capabilities to take it out.

Outside of the battlefield, drones have been used in terrorist incidents across the Middle East, such as the attack on Saudi Arabia’s largest oil processing facility in 2019 which cut the country’s oil production in half – about 5% of the world’s oil supply. In a chilling demonstration of the technology’s potential, on Sunday the Iraqi prime minister narrowly survived an exploding drone attack on his own home, within the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad.

More examples can be given but you get the point. The world is very different now from what it was even 10 or 20 years ago. Killer robots are no longer the realm of science fiction but a real and present danger. It is why in December, a group of UN experts will meet to decide whether to begin negotiating a new international law on autonomy in weapons systems. A comprehensive ban on LAWS is one that I and many of my colleagues fully support.

Taking a human life should not be an easy decision and it is a decision which must never be taken out of human hands. We know that many surveillance systems result in unconscious bias and racial profiling, thereby embedding institutional inequalities. We also know that authoritarian governments are keen to exploit any technology which gives them unparalleled control over the lives of their citizens. In China, the programme of mass surveillance enables the government to find and locate an individual in a city of millions within minutes whilst facial recognition has also been used to repress the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Give this surveillance the powers of a lethal weapon and the consequences of this digital dehumanisation will be tragic for civil society and activists around the world. The speed at which LAWS process targets leaves little room for error whilst also risks kicking off an arms race, causing further instability in an increasingly unstable world.

By making war cheap, LAWS will cheapen human lives. It is therefore imperative that the nations of the world take concerted action now to stop their development.

This was why I put forward a Private Members Bill last year which would have outlawed the development and export of LAWS, as well as providing some much-needed scrutiny on the UK’s arms exports. With the support of my colleagues, we sought to deliver on our 2019 manifesto commitment which support an international ban of LAWS. It is therefore disappointing that the UK Government has refused to follow suit, albeit unsurprising given their preference for diabolical warfare over strategic considerations.

The defence industry would also stand to benefit from the ban of these weapons. Defence companies represent important research and development, precision manufacturing, high-end engineering, academic contributions and partnerships, and aerospace developments that are key parts of Scotland’s economy now and going forward. They also play a part in the defence ecosystem and the national security of these islands. In banning LAWS, it would go some way to remove the stigma that is associated with defence companies by some quarters.

We have been here before. Land mines and cluster bombs used to be used around the world until civil society worked together to pressure lawmakers into outlawing these dangerous weapons. The spread of nuclear weapons has been limited in many ways by the efforts of ordinary citizens and hard-working NGOs. Already there are signs of similar success being made in the campaign to ban LAWs, with 30 countries stating their opposition to development of these weapons and their use in warfare. More action is still needed but the signs are looking promising that we will be able to nip the use of this dangerous technology in the bud.

And it should be nipped in the bud. Progress on the issue has stalled in Westminster but that’s not to mean it is off the agenda. Without concerted international action, LAWS will continue to be a real and present danger to civil society activists, minorities and the world at large.

Weapons must be kept in the hands of people rather than computers and always used as a last resort. Going to war should never be a decision taken lightly; banning LAWs will go a long way towards ensuring that such heavy decisions are made by humans rather than AI programmes. It is why I am more than happy to give my full support to Amnesty’s Ban Killer Robots campaign to outlaw Lethal Autonomous Weapons and I hope that my parliamentary colleagues in these islands and around the world will give their full support as well.