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On Friday the United Nations closed the first-ever talks on fully autonomous weapons, with experts warning that time was running out to set rules for the use of the machines dubbed "killer robots".

The UN is facing mounting pressure to act against weapons systems – likely to be battle ready soon – that can identify and destroy without human control. 

The five-day meeting of the UN's Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), marked an initial step towards an agreed set of rules governing the weapons.

Twenty-two countries, mostly those with smaller military budgets and lesser technical know-how, have called for an outright ban, arguing that automated weapons are, by definition, illegal as every individual decision to launch a strike must be made by a human.

In a statement summing up the discussions, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots pressure group said: "a majority of states now accept that some form of human control must be maintained over weapons systems."

The question now is deciding "what effective human control means in practice", said the head of the Arms Unit at the International Committee of the Red Cross, Kathleen Lawland. 

"Given the rapid development of robotic weapon systems with ever increasing autonomy, the ICRC is convinced that internationally agreed limits are urgently needed to address the fundamental legal and ethical concerns," she said.

Academics attending the UN talks said that the glacial pace of the discussion was failing to respond to an emerging threat. The "arms race has happened (and) is happening today," said Toby Walsh, an expert on artificial intelligence at the University of New South Wales.

"These will be weapons of mass destruction," he added during a side-event at the UN this week.

"I am actually quite confident that we will ban these weapons... My only concern if whether (nations) have the courage of conviction to do it now, or whether we will have to wait for people to die first."

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots said a majority of countries now support some kind of "legally-binding instrument," which was not the case before this week's meeting. 

The group voiced concern about the prospect for the path forward, a tentative plan for nations to meet on killer robots for just 10 days next year is inadequate to "make significant progress," the campaign said.


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