Mapping LAWS


The Mapping LAWS project

Debates around the development, regulation and use of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS), or ‘killer robots’, have rapidly developed over the past decade. These are high stakes debates, as LAWS are not an incremental development in warfare, but a disruptive one. The scope, scale, autonomy, and lethality of these weapons systems unsettle the traditional military chain of command and enable new actors to undermine the ethical norms and international law that governs warfare. As such, debates over the future of these weapons have been joined by a wide variety of political leaders, scholars, activists, scientists, and lawyers. These debates resonate in public imagination, prefigured in popular culture images of ‘killer robots’ or artificially intelligent robots run amok. Representations from popular science fiction, most famously in films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Terminator series, and I, Robot, are a disturbing frame of reference for the public engaging with these debates. These popular associations with ‘killer robots’ can serve to obscure the fact that the debates are highly complex. Yet while some attempts have been made to develop bibliographies of published work on LAWS or to distil the major claims for and against, there does not yet appear to have been any attempt to closely examine the key argumentative frames that have been deployed in the debate and the political purposes for which they are being advanced.

In order to clarify and further analyse some of these emergent issues, this research will generate a comprehensive issue map of the multifaceted debates emerging around LAWS. Our research will map the interactions, networks and narrative politics that are bringing this new era of ‘algorithmic warfare’ into being, thus generating insights for theoretical development, critical analysis, and effective regulation. We will focus in particular on the political and ethical challenges presented by LAWS in relation to the study of international relations, public policy and anticipatory governance, and networks and social movements. Our preliminary qualitative and quantitative piloting of this research has identified a range of issues and cleavages that require further investigation in these areas.

The Mapping LAWS research project is based at the University of Canterbury Political Science and International Relations Department. The project is supported by a grant from the Royal Society of New Zealand's Marsden Fund (19-UOC-068).

Project Team

Project Team

Associate Professor Jeremy Moses, Primary Investigator

“My primary research interests lie at the intersection of the humanitarian and military discourses on lethal autonomous weapons systems. The ways in which LAWS are represented as a potentially cleaner, more clinical, or surgical approach to warfare represents a continuation of trends over recent decades to give a more humanitarian face to warfighting. Drawing on the datasets and visualizations we assemble in the early phases of this project, I aim to show where and how these humanitarian frames are most commonly used and what the potential dangers of this approach might be.”

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Associate Professor Amy Fletcher

Amy is focusing on public policy and commercial sector framing and implications of the LAWS debate.


Dr Geoffrey Ford, Associate Investigator

“I'm a political scientist with a professional background in software and web technologies. In the Mapping LAWS project I'm applying my skills to create tools to collect, structure, visualise and analyse texts about autonomous weapons. During the project I'll release some of the software I've developed. I'm primarily interested in the role, function and politics of expertise in debates about lethal autonomous weapons.”

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Dr Sian Troath, Postdoctoral Fellow

“I have a background in researching theories of trust in relationships between states, as well as Australian foreign and defence policy. For this project I will be looking at questions around trust and technology as they relate to LAWS, issue-mapping the LAWS space in Australia, exploring perceptions of LAWS within defence, and analysing the implications of LAWS for alliance relationships.”

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