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International negotiations to regulate artificial intelligence-based weapons are encountering difficulties, with Japan, Germany and others backing international rules on regulation but maintaining a cautious stance on a treaty to prohibit killer robots.

Behind their muted approach is a fear that countries that develop autonomous weapons would shun such a treaty anyway, diminishing the significance of international efforts toward any regulation. Therefore, countries differ over how to attain this objective while agreeing on the need to prevent lethal autonomous weapons from running out of control.

Germany hosted an online meeting in early April amid the COVID-19 pandemic to facilitate talks on the control of killer robots, as promoted by the U.N. Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).

Representatives of more than 60 countries and regions — including the United States and Israel, both developers of AI weapons, the European Union and the United Nations — as well as nongovernmental organizations, logged in to participate in the forum. China and Russia, also developers of such weapons, did not join.

The CCW drew up its first guidelines in August last year on the involvement of humans in AI weapons when they are used for attacks. The guidelines were seen as unpractical, however, due to failures to specify when and how extensively humans should be involved.

Participants in the online meeting discussed how to realize human involvement.

Allowing machines to decide over the life and death of human beings goes against ethical standards and undermines human dignity, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said at the opening of the forum.

Another focal point is whether the international community can conclude a treaty to ban killer robots. As the CCW's guidelines are not legally binding, Latin American nations and NGOs stressed the need for such a treaty.

Developers of autonomous weapons, with the exception of China, strongly oppose even negotiations for a treaty.

Japan, Germany and other countries, while backing international rules to regulate killer robots, maintain a cautious stance on a treaty to prohibit them. Given wide differences over autonomous weapons, they fear that developers will shun a treaty even if negotiations are ever held, or that a definition of such weapons — if worked out through negotiations while their future remains unclear — may lead to the legalization of deadlier robots.

But Kanae Doi, Japan director of Human Rights Watch, an international NGO involved in talks on autonomous weapons at the CCW from the start, said, "It's important that nonparticipants in a prohibition treaty will be stigmatized as inhumane in the international community if they use (AI weapons)."

NGOs may leave the CCW and seek a treaty under a new framework if the issue remains pending, she said.

Japan, which participated in the online meeting through its delegation to the U.N. Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, has already declared that it will not develop any fully autonomous weapons. With the declaration, Tokyo hopes to lead efforts to compile international rules to regulate killer robots.

Japan plans to host an international conference on autonomous weapons in Tokyo by the end of the current fiscal year.

It has not determined its stance on the rules yet, however. "We still have to figure out what would be best," a Foreign Ministry official said.

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