Human Rights Watch (HRW) said such weapons systems operate without meaningful human control, delegating life-and-death decisions to machines.
A 40-page report, “An Agenda for Action: Alternative Processes for Negotiating a Killer Robots Treaty”, jointly published by HRW and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic, said countries initiate a treaty-making process based on past humanitarian disarmament models, such as for the treaty banning cluster munitions.
Automated weapons can include things such as self-driving tanks, surveillance drones with AI-enabled image recognition or unmanned underwater vehicles that operate in swarms, as well as many other technologies. The weapons can be deployed with little or no human oversight.
The report said India and Russia, as well as Australia, China, Iran, Israel, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States, are investing heavily in the military applications of artificial intelligence and related technologies to develop air, land, and sea-based autonomous weapons systems.
International talks on concerns about lethal autonomous weapons systems have taken place since 2014, under the United Nations' Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), although no treaty has been formed.
Countries will reconvene at the UN in Geneva next week, for an annual meeting, but there is no indication they will agree to negotiate a new legally binding instrument via the CCW in 2023 or in the near future.
HRW said the main reason for the lack of progress under the CCW was its member countries rely on a consensus approach to decision making, which means a single country can reject a proposal, even if every other country agrees to it.
A handful of major military powers have repeatedly blocked proposals to move to negotiations, notably India and Russia over the past year. Both countries also attempted to block non-governmental organisations from participating in discussions in 2022.
“A new international treaty that addresses autonomous weapons systems needs a more appropriate forum for negotiations,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior arms researcher at HRW, associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection at the Harvard Human Rights Clinic, and lead author of the report.
“There’s ample precedent to show that an alternative process to create legal rules on killer robots is viable and desirable, and countries need to act now to keep pace with technological developments.”
More than 70 countries, as well as non-governmental organisations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, have said they regard a new treaty with prohibitions and restrictions as “necessary, urgent, and achievable”.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called for “internationally agreed limits” on weapons systems that could, by themselves, target and attack human beings, describing such weapons as “morally repugnant and politically unacceptable”.
Ms Docherty said: “The longer the killer robots’ issue stays stuck in the current forum, the more time developers of autonomous weapons systems have to hone new technologies and achieve commercial viability."
She added: "A new treaty would help stem arms races and avoid proliferation by stigmatising the removal of human control.”