Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator

Photo by Michael Chiribau, UNITAR Division for Multilateral Diplomacy 


Greetings and welcome to a brief news update on the third day of Geneva Science Diplomacy Week 2023. Wednesday morning’s session at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, led by Jean-Marc Rickli, GCSP’s Head of Global and Emerging Risks, and Federico Mantellassi, a GCSP a Research and Project Officer, looked at efforts to create global governance for lethal autonomous weapons systems.

The session divided participants into two fictional “working” groups: real life policy makers role playing scientists versus real life scientists role playing policy makers. Their task was to discuss a ban on such weapons and the ethics surrounding people being killed by machines that makes the decision beyond the realm of human intervention. Among their instructions was to figure out whether there was anything to ban: the weapon, system or payload?

In the first group – real life policymakers role playing scientists – participants began looking at issues such as the degree and requirements of geospatial capabilities, whether a partial ban might work and what exactly is autonomy. Everyone initially agreed that collateral damage was the main issue.

“Can we ensure a minimum degree of transparency? Do we know what degree of bias and algorithms they’re going to run?” asked one participant. “We’re probably going to have different qualities or different degrees of self-restraints embedded into the weapons systems.”

Some noted that even Leonardo da Vinci and Alfred Nobel were weapons designers. Da Vinci, best known for the Mona Lisa and his other artwork, designed a crossbow, armored fighting vehicle, and 12-barreled gun carriage; Nobel, best known for the Nobel prizes including for work toward peacemaking, invented dynamite and blasting caps.

They could not agree on an outcome but shared concerns about the lack of accountability around the chain of command; the scale of the harm that might be inflicted; autonomous weapons’ targeting capabilities; and what is the acceptable level of risk or the precise difference between such weapons and young soldiers who lack experience or training.

In the second group – real life scientists role playing policy makers – participants quickly turned to political considerations, offensive and defensive capabilities of the weapons, and whether targets are humans or machines.

Everyone initially agreed on the need for a two-tier approach and a ban or regulations – but concluded a ban was impossible.

“The military can target civilians as well,” one participant argued. Usage of lethal autonomous weapons “would actually reduce the collateral damage – at least that’s one of the arguments that are used to justify their use.”

They wound up mostly agreeing on the need to regulate indiscriminate weapons and targeting along with the development of lethal autonomous weapons even if their uses are later transferred to civilian uses, and to register hardware through civilian law.

The debate over how to regulate emerging and not-yet-fully-developed technologies illustrated the practical need for and uses of GESDA’s future-facing mission. “We are witnessing exponential growth in some of these technologies,” said Rickli.

Participants also enjoyed a private discussion with GCSP Director Ambassador Thomas Greminger, a former Secretary General of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), who shared lessons as a diplomat who has exclusively focused on multilateralism for his entire career. The day concluded with a session on negotiation engineering with former Swiss President and GESDA Board member Micheline Calmy-Rey.

The methodology, currently being developed as an academic field by the Science in Diplomacy Lab (SiDLab) at the University of Geneva and Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at Zürich, aims to depoliticize negotiations by applying a scientific method. It’s an unusual approach to diplomacy – a field that has remained essentially qualitative – by offering unexplored avenues for solving complex problems with quantitative methods.

In the evening, participants heard a session on “Science, Peacetech and Diplomacy” at the Geneva Graduate Institute with Peter Maurer, former President of the International Committee of the Red Cross; Ambassador Alexandre Fasel, Swiss Special Representative for Science Diplomacy and Chair of the Diplomacy Forum at GESDA; Klaus Schönenberger, Director of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at Lausanne’s EssentialTech Centre; and Annyssa Bellal, Executive Director of the Geneva Peacebuilding Platform.

Schönenberger said that “tech for peace does not work” because it puts the cart before the horse; peace is an “incredibly complex” process that, per Johan Galtung’s definition, requires the absence of violence in all its forms. Maurer said diplomacy can be leveraged for science and vice versa, “but what I’m most interested in today is science in diplomacy” – direct support for diplomatic processes and decisions through scientific advice and evidence.

Fasel agreed.“That is what we’re trying to do with GESDA,” he said. “Taking the time to develop a shared sense of purpose.”