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Autonomous Weapons

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Abstract: This entry puts forth a proposed definition of autonomous weapons, explains the basis of that definition, distinguishes autonomous weapons from drones and explains how autonomous weapons are not speculative, future systems; they are used by the militaries of over thirty countries.Recognizing that autonomy is a relative concept, this definition of autonomous weapons refers to a machine or system that can either learn or adapt its functioning to changing circumstances and once activated, select and engage targets with lethal force without further human involvement. That the machine or system selects and engages targets is one differentiation between autonomous weapons and drones, where a human operator both selects the target and fires or launches a weapon. Under this definition, autonomous weapons have existed for decades. Most of these weapons are defensive and anti-material in nature, engaging rockets and missiles, where there is minimal risk of humans being injured but also aircraft, vehicles and vessels, where the risk to humans is much greater. Indeed autonomous weapons used in armed conflict have already killed humans, while at the same time the overwhelming use of these weapons hasn’t been controversial.

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