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Killer Robots: Survey Shows Opposition Remains Strong

Stalled Diplomatic Talks Highlight Urgent Need for Political Leadership

Campaign to Stop Killer Robots press briefing at the United Nations in New York in October 2019. © 2019 Ari Beser

(Washington, DC) – More than three in five people responding to a new online survey in 28 countries oppose using weapons systems, commonly called “killer robots,” that select and attack targets without further human intervention, Human Rights Watch said today.

The survey, conducted in December 2020 by the market research company Ipsos, was commissioned by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which Human Rights Watch co-founded. Sixty-two percent of respondents said they oppose the use of lethal autonomous weapons systems, also known as fully autonomous weapons, while 21 percent support such use and 17 percent said they were not sure. Of those with a firm opinion, 75 percent were opposed.  

“Public concerns over automating the use of force are telling political leaders to act now,” said Mary Wareham, arms division advocacy director at Human Rights Watch and coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. “There is a dire need to protect humanity by starting negotiations now to ban killer robots.”

The 2020 Ipsos poll surveyed nearly 19,000 people, using samples of 500 to 1,000 people in each of the 28 countries. In 18, the sample is representative of the general population, while the samples in the other countries represent a more affluent, internet-connected population, due to lower levels of internet penetration. The strongest opposition was in Sweden (76 percent), Turkey (73 percent), and Hungary (70 percent).

Opposition was strong for both women (63 percent) and men (60 percent) although men are more likely to favor use of these weapons (26 percent) compared with women (16 percent).

Opposition to killer robots was strong across generations and steadily increased with age, from 54 percent for those ages 18-35 to 68 percent for ages 50 to 64.

The 2020 Ipsos poll also asked those opposed to killer robots what concerned them the most. Two-thirds (66 percent) answered that lethal autonomous weapons systems would “cross a moral line because machines should not be allowed to kill.” More than half (53 percent) said killer robots would be “unaccountable” and there is opposition (42 percent) due to concerns that killer robots would be subject to technical failures.

The overall poll results are nearly the same as an identical survey on killer robots by the same company in 26 of the same countries in December 2018, which found 61 percent were opposed, 22 percent not opposed, and 17 percent unsure.

All countries surveyed by Ipsos have participated since 2014 in diplomatic meetings on concerns raised by lethal autonomous weapons systems. Those talks have been stalled since November 2020, when the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) failed to agree on its program of work in 2021.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is a rapidly growing coalition of 172 nongovernmental organizations in 65 countries that is working to ban fully autonomous weapons.

“Public sentiment against fully autonomous weapons has not diminished,” Wareham said. “Now’s the time for strong preventive measures, not further diplomatic inaction.”

Further Analysis of the Ipsos Surveys on Killer Robots

Overall Opposition to Killer Robots in 2020

The 2020 Ipsos poll was conducted in 28 countries: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Peru, Poland, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, and United States.

The 2020 poll used the same question from the previous poll, which states:

The United Nations is reviewing the strategic, legal and moral implications of lethal autonomous weapons systems. These weapons systems would be capable of independently selecting targets and attacking those targets without human intervention. They are thus different than current day “drones” where humans select and attack targets. How do you feel about the use of such lethal autonomous weapons systems in war?

Of those who expressed a view, more than three times as many respondents said they opposed killer robots as those who were not opposed.

A majority of respondents in 26 countries opposed killer robots. The only countries where a majority of respondents did not oppose killer robots were France (47 percent) and India (36 percent).

In 21 countries, 59 percent or more of respondents were opposed: Sweden (76 percent opposed), Turkey (73 percent), Hungary (70 percent), Germany (68 percent), Norway (67 percent), Colombia (66 percent), Belgium (66 percent), Mexico (66 percent), Spain (66 percent), South Africa (66 percent), Peru (65 percent), Poland (65 percent), South Korea (65 percent), Australia (64 percent), Brazil (62 percent), Canada (60 percent), Switzerland (60 percent), Argentina (59 percent), Italy (59 percent), Japan (59 percent), and the Netherlands (59 percent).

Notably, a majority opposed killer robots in five countries most active in the development and testing of weapons systems with decreasing levels of human control: Russia (58 percent), UK (56 percent), US (55 percent), China (53 percent) and Israel (53 percent).


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