Autonomous robots are coming and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is concerned.

Technically, the bots are here, already, in some form, depending on one’s definition of both “autonomy” and “robot,” but the big deal ― the moving, processing, reacting machine, the kind that interprets its environment, checks against programming, and then decides to literally or metaphorically pull the trigger ― those robots live mostly in the future. But it’s a future that companies may start actively building, soon. And it might be happening in Europe, with EU funding, based on early reports from negotiations over as €500m defense investment program.

As reported in the EU Observer:

An amendment to the bill, which said weapons of mass destruction, cluster munitions, anti-personnel landmines, and fully autonomous weapons should not be eligible for funding, was scrapped at the request of the council. Instead, the proposed regulation setting up the €500m fund would merely say that projects would not be eligible if their end product was “prohibited by international law”. In exchange, the council offered the parliament to include a ‘recital’ - the legal term for one of the paragraphs setting out the reasons behind the law - which said that “the eligibility of actions … should also be subject to developments in international law”.

So, again, what makes up an autonomous robot?

Deferring to international law would be a pretty humdrum response, if the international law on this issue were remotely clear and settled. Weapons of mass destruction, cluster munitions, and anti-personnel landmines are already prohibited by international law, so this is a carve-out for fully autonomous weapons alone.

In addition, there are debates underway to sort out this law; the United Nations held multiple informal meetings of experts on autonomous weapons and law in 2013, 2014, and 2015. In 2016 and 2017, those informal meetings were replaced by a group of governmental experts that met to debate the issue, and they plan to do so again in 2018.

Reacting to this news, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots called it on Twitter “shortsighted & ill-considered,” going on to say that “Killer robots are not yet “prohibited by international law” so this fix is no solution. There’s also no consensus among #EU states yet, Austria wants new law to address specific challenges, France + Germany are peddling weak political measures, etc. We hope the Council of the European Union @EUCouncil reconsiders this decision. It should take a serious look at whether the EU will prevent or facilitate the development of fully autonomous weapons.”

If the EU is going to develop armed and autonomous robots before knowing how, exactly, those robots will be treated by international law, then it is hardly alone in that fact. Russia has already reportedly deployed the Uran-9 autonomous robot tanklet to Syria for testing. Should testing go from exercises to live combat, it will become just one of many international norms violated in the long-running civil war.