Tokyo Report | Security | East Asia

Clash of Killer Robots? Japan’s Role in Preventing AI Apocalypse

Japan has a responsibility to spearhead discussions on the legal regulation of lethal autonomous weapons systems.

By Daisuke Akimoto for
Clash of Killer Robots? Japan’s Role in Preventing AI Apocalypse
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Mztourist

Civil society organizations have warned that if “killer robots” or “lethal autonomous weapons systems” (LAWS) reminiscent of the famous film The Terminator are created, such weapons would cause serious problems with regards to human rights. In science fiction, artificial intelligence (AI) technology often surpasses human beings, bringing about an apocalyptic scenario. Indeed, it is fair to consider that the combination of AI technology and nuclear weapons might bring about such a devastating conflict in the future. Although no “fully autonomous” weapon exists at this stage, several countries, such as the United States, Russia, China, South Korea, and Israel, are thought to have developed “semi-autonomous” weapons equipped with artificial intelligence.

LAWS issues have been a part of international discussions in the United Nations, and the Japanese government has actively participated in these conferences. Japanese politicians have also discussed the issues in the National Diet since 2015. This article examines Japan’s role in the international regulation of LAWS and attempts to explore possible solutions in international law.

In 2013, the United Nations decided to discuss concerns about LAWS within the framework of the “Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons” (CCW), which prohibits or restricts the use of specific weapons. Parties at the discussions on the CCW can be divided into those supporting early regulation or prohibition of LAWS and those against such measures. In particular, the United States, Russia, and China have shown reluctance in supporting the legal prohibition of the development of LAWS because they fear that such a regulation could be disadvantageous for their military strategy. Indeed, it has been considered that the United States, China, Israel, Russia, South Korea, and the United Kingdom have already developed “semi-autonomous” weapons systems.

Japan has supported the CCW framework and the annexed Protocols. Internationally, the Japanese government has dispatched delegations to the international discussions on the LAWS issues. At a CCW conference in November 2013, it was decided that LAWS issues should be discussed. In May 2014, Japanese Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament Toshio Sano, officials from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), Ministry of Defense (MOD), and Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), as well as Professor Heigo Sato of Takushoku University as an expert on arms control and disarmament, attended the CCW to discuss LAWS. In the CCW conference held in Geneva on May 13, 2014, Japanese Ambassador Toshio Sano explained Japan’s stance on LAWS and expressed deep appreciation for the role of civil society in contributing to awareness of humanitarian concerns related to the development of LAWS. Sano stressed that the Japanese government was taking an interest in the LAWS issue and would like to engage in international discussions. He also stated that Japan would continue to research and develop “non-lethal autonomous technology for defense purposes” but that the government would not develop “fully autonomous” weapons systems. In the CCW conference on November 13, 2014 which took place in Geneva, Sano explained Japan’s stance on LAWS in a speech.

Sano commended the French ambassador at the informal meeting of experts on LAWS in May 2014, calling his leadership “fruitful and insightful,” and expressed Japan’s support for further discussions on LAWS within the framework of the CCW. The second informal meeting of experts on LAWS in the CCW was held in Geneva on April 13, 2015. The Japanese government expressed its support for the meeting to facilitate a discussion of the core concepts regarding LAWS, such as its definition, the implications of autonomy, and “meaningful human control.” Furthermore, the government stated that Japan had no plan to develop “fully autonomous” weapons systems.

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On October 26, 2015 in New York, Sano delivered a speech at the first committee of the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly. Sano stated that Japan commended the “leadership of Germany in the second informal meeting of experts” and that Japan would support further discussion, particularly on the definition of LAWS, for the Fifth CCW Review Conference in 2016. On November 12, 2015, Sano made a speech at the CCW conference in Geneva and expressed Japan’s view that it is important to reach a consensus on a certain definition of LAWS. The third CCW meeting of experts on LAWS chaired by German Ambassador Michael Biontino was held in Geneva on April 11, 2016. In the meeting, the Japanese government submitted its working paper on LAWS and stressed the importance of the meeting.

On November 13, 2017, the first meeting of the “Group of Governmental Experts” (GGE) on LAWS as a subsidiary body of the CCW was held in Geneva. The mandate of the GGE is decided based on the High Contracting Parties to the CCW, and the experts widely discussed issues related to LAWS from legal, ethical, military, and technological perspectives. The 2017 CCW conference was held in Geneva on November 20, 2017. Ambassador Nobushige Takamizawa and officials from MOFA and MOD attended the meeting to discuss the arguments expressed in the first GGE session. Takamizawa, MOFA and MOD officials, and Professor Heigo Sato participated in the second GGE meeting on April 9, 2018. The Japanese ambassador and officials from the MOFA and the MOD also attended the third GGE meeting on August 27, 2018, where they argued that the Japanese government would not develop LAWS and that “meaningful human control” over weapons should be required.

On November 19, 2018, Takamizawa and Japanese foreign affairs and defense officials attended the CCW conference to discuss concerns about LAWS in Geneva. From March 25-29, 2019, the GGE on LAWS was held within the framework of the CCW in Geneva. The Japanese government submitted a working paper to the GGE on March 21, 2019, in which the government requested the GGE facilitate a “direction towards possible future actions of the international community on LAWS,” reach a “mutual understanding” on the definition of LAWS and meaningful human control, and reach a consensus on an “outcome document.” In the GGE held on August 20-21, 2019, the Japanese delegation headed by Takamizawa joined the international discussion on the legal regulation of LAWS in international law. On November 19, 2019, Takamizawa and Japanese officials attended the CCW conference in Geneva. In the conference, it was decided that the GGE would be held on June 22-26 and August 10-14, 2020. Thus, the Japanese government has actively participated in the international discussions to regulate LAWS in the framework of the CCW.

At the same time however, the Japanese government has been cautious about creating a legally binding treaty to ban LAWS due to its national interests in the dual use nature of AI technology as well as the strategic importance of AI-equipped defense capabilities as “semi-autonomous” defense systems. Moreover, as the joint development of “military drones” between Japan and the United States and Israel indicates, Japan’s policy on the development of AI weapons seems to be under the influence of U.S. military strategy. Nevertheless, it is possible for the Japanese government and other UN member states to facilitate international discussions and agree on a “political declaration” to regulate LAWS as a first step. Such a declaration can be upgraded into an international agreement that provides a legally binding framework.

It may be difficult for the international community to completely regulate or illegalize LAWS once such weapons systems are created and deployed. The development of LAWS could transform the nature of future military conflicts in an inhumane and catastrophic manner. Therefore, Japan, as a former militarist state that invaded countries of the Asia Pacific region, as a pacifist state with a Peace Constitution, as the sole state to have suffered from nuclear attacks, and as a leader in technology, has a responsibility to spearhead further international discussions on the legal regulation of LAWS.

Daisuke Akimoto is Official Secretary to State Minister of Finance in the House of Representatives, Japan, and former Assistant Professor at the Soka University Peace Research Institute. He holds a PhD in Asian Studies and International Relations from the University of Western Sydney and an MA in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Sydney. His recent publications include “The Abe Doctrine: Japan’s Proactive Pacifism and Security Strategy” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). His views are his own and do not represent the House of Representatives or the Japanese government. This article is an abridged version of a longer piece, accessible here.