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Issue #1616      October 30, 2013

Culture & Life

Rise of the killer robots!

Irrespective of intelligence, no machine is capable of morality. So, if you thought drones were bad, you are likely to take an even dimmer view of their successors: “lethal autonomous robotic weapons”. Unlike remote-controlled drones, “killer robots” require no external “live” human input at all, and can be pre-programmed to select and destroy specific targets.

The new weaponry poses a grave threat to human rights, according to the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which argues that the arms undermine international law by eliminating all human culpability.

In the tradition of militarised drones, developed by contractors behind closed doors and unleashed, almost without warning, on to the battlefield, lethal autonomous weapons could be put into use in combat without further public debate.

It’s a trend that concerns human rights groups and military organisations in equal measure. The latter consider it a slight on military practice to suggest that wars should not be fought by trained individuals, acting under certain codes.

The “killer robot” technology is being developed in the US, Britain, Russia, China and Israel. Israel already has the “Harpy” – a “fire and forget” weapon capable of detecting and destroying radar emitters.

“If this is coupled with greater autonomy of movement and operation,” explains Laura Boillot of Article36, a not-for-profit working to prevent unacceptable harm caused by weapons, “we will start to see fully autonomous weapons in combat.”

So when will governments discuss putting controls on fully autonomous weapons?

The UN Human Rights Council hosted its first debate on the ethics of these weapons last May. Britain opposed a moratorium on development of the arms – the only state out of 24 in attendance to do so.

“A couple of states have recommended that this issue be discussed at the next meeting of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) in November,” says Boillot. “Around 100 states are party to the treaty, which managed to ban blinding lasers, comparable to killer robots in that they were banned before coming into use. But on the whole, it is not famous for ambitious, standard-setting results.”

Even if fully autonomous weapons are blocked by the CCW, the technology now exists. In the long run, it will become increasingly difficult to govern.


 

Main Street takes on Wall Street

The City of Richmond in California is buying up property to prevent its residents being evicted by their banks. Mayor Gayle McLaughlin talks to Samir Jeraj about the program which has got Wall Street up in arms.

What prompted you to take action on foreclosures in Richmond? Why is it important to you?

Richmond is a majority minority city and our working class neighbourhoods were targeted by Wall Street for predatory loans. This means we’ve been really hard hit by the housing crisis and by foreclosures. It’s taking a toll on the entire city. In addition to the families losing their housing, home values have plummeted, neighbourhoods are dealing with blighted vacant properties and property tax revenue is down, affecting city services.

We heard about this program, which could be enacted locally, that will help prevent foreclosures and restore community wealth. We are acquiring troubled loans, reducing the mortgage principal, and getting the homeowners into affordable, sustainable mortgages.

How will it help the people of Richmond?

The program hasn’t been implemented yet. When it is, we believe we will be able to save thousands of struggling homeowners hundreds of dollars on their monthly mortgage payments. Fewer foreclosures will occur. We will prevent further destabilisation of neighbourhoods.

How is the City working with community groups on this program?

Very closely. The community organisation Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) is a membership-based community group in Richmond’s lower-income communities of colour. These are the neighbourhoods hardest hit by the housing crisis. ACCE has been organising and engaging community residents in general and “underwater” homeowners specifically, to push for this program and help develop it. They have pulled together a coalition of Richmond organisations that are supporting this effort. I work closely with all these groups and am committed to them being at the table and involved every step of the way.

Do you think this type of program will become common in US cities?

There is tremendous frustration across the country that so little has been done for “Main Street” – so little has been done to help struggling families save their homes. For over five years we have been hoping that the federal government would offer widespread relief, but they haven’t. Once we show that there is finally a local way to write down troubled mortgages at scale and help thousands keep their homes, many cities will want to follow suit.

How will it affect the City’s finances?

We do not expect it to affect the City’s finances. One of the great things about this program is that it doesn’t cost the City anything. We have a private partner that provides the funding to acquire the loans and the funding to operate the program.

The New York Times reported that you are facing opposition from the real estate and banking lobbies. How have you managed to deal with this level of well-funded and well-organised corporate opposition?

The key has been that there is tremendous public support. The community overwhelmingly supports this effort and they’ve been organising to demonstrate this support. There were over 200 supporters at a City Council meeting in September, when the opposition was trying to kill the program. And those of us in elected office who are pushing this are not afraid of Wall Street and don’t feel beholden to Wall Street. We are listening to the people who elected us.

In addition to people power, we are working with lawyers, and local and national policy experts. There are many people across the country who are motivated to help us, because they know this could set an important precedent.

New Internationalist

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