Analysis of the Controversy of a ban on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) based on the SCOT concept

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2021

14 Pages, Grade: 7 (dutch System)



Section 1: Introduction

Section 2: Risk and Uncertainty in STS

Section 3: Methodological Concept of SCOT

Section 4: Analysis of the Controversy of a ban on LAWS

Section 5: Conclusion

Reference List

Section 1: Introduction

The technology of LAWS is discussed controversially: At the political level of states, in international institutions, the scientific field of AI and robotics, the companies working in these fields, the public and the media landscape.

In 2020, Human Rights Watch (hrw) published a report outlining the country positions of a total of 97 states on the issue (hrw, 2020). 55 of these countries are on the OECD 's “DAC List of ODA Recipients” (OECD, 2020) - which is used by some as a basis for categorization as belonging to the ‘Global South’ 1 . The Stop Killer Robots Campaign, founded in 2013, lists over 180 NGOs and academic partners at international, regional and national levels, from 66 different countries (Stop Killer Robots, 2021). In addition, there are statements of associations, which state their position towards the technology of autonomous weapons, for example, the Non-Aligned Movement, a forum of 120 developing countries (NAM, 2021), or NATO (NATO, 2021). All this shows that the technology of LAWS does not only affect the countries where the manufacturers or buyers of the weapons are located – which is mostly countries considered to be from the ‘Global North’, but at the same time also those states in which the weapons are already in use and will be in the future, i.e. warring states, which are largely assigned to the ‘Global South’ according to the OECD list. The issue, however, potentially affects everyone because the weapons could be used anywhere and raise ethical and humanitarian questions that affect the entire global society.

This paper aims to shed light on the question: How is the globally discussed technology of LAWS and its ban perceived by different social groups? Currently, those who are against a ban dominate globally. These are powerful countries that are also leaders in the development of LAWS and refer to the justifications of experts and commercial players. The German focus in this paper is due to the author's personal connection to Germany as well as the fact that the topic is currently on the agenda there in the context of the new government formation.

In the following (Section 2), the controversy of banning LAWS is embedded in the scientific discourse on risk and uncertainty and a selection of the concepts is applied to the technology to not only emphasize the socio-political relevance mentioned in the introduction, but also the academic relevance. Next, the methodological concept of SCOT is introduced theoretically (Section 3) and then applied to the LAWS object of study (Section 4). Finally, the conclusion (Section 5) summarizes the main findings, highlights the limitations of the work, and suggests a way forward.

Section 2: Risk and Uncertainty in STS

Risk and uncertainty are part of modern life. In this context, Ulrich Beck coined the term "world risk society" (Beck, 2006). In particular, technological risks are the focus of global discourse. Technologies create new industrial opportunities that trigger changes beyond the local context thanks to globalization. If the risks of these innovative technologies are overestimated, they can block their development and thus progress in general. If the risks are underestimated, however, unforeseen consequences can cause irreversible damage. (Juma & Yee-Cheong, 2005, p. 174-175)

What exactly does the term risk describe? Some definitions consider risk as an objective component of something, others consider risk as the result of a social process - for example Boholm, who describes risk as "a relational term that emerges out of contexts depending on shared conventionally established meanings, that is to say, 'culture'" (2003, p. 175). According to him, risk consists of the connection of the origin of potential harm (the technology of LAWS) with the object at risk (potentially every human) and the evaluation of consequences (the different ways LAWS are being seen as). Risk is thus a "relational order through which connections between people, 'things' and 'outcomes' are constituted" (Boholm, 2003, p. 175).

In the context of how we can deal with uncertainty, Asselt and Renn distinguish so-called "simple risks" from "systemic risks" (2011, p. 436). Simple risks are those for which statistics exist and that recur and can therefore be calculated as a linear function of probability and effect. Systemic risks require a holistic approach, are characterized by ripple and spillover effects, and affect areas that are themselves characterized by risk. For example, LAWS technology has an impact not only on the weapons industry, but also the sciences of AI and robotics, the economy of a state, and political matters. This makes risk governance complex and unwieldy. Despite the lack of scientific evidence, decision-making regarding such risks is mostly technocratic, i.e., decision-makers rely on expert judgments and recommendations to specify the course of actions. This is what Asselt and Vos call the "uncertainty paradox: an umbrella term for situations in which uncertainty is present and acknowledged, but the role of science is framed as one of providing certainty" (2008, p. 282). In practice, it is common for policymakers to make decisions without having all the answers. This is also true for LAWS. Although the technology is still in development and no one can foresee what the consequences will be for the global community, national governments find themselves forced to make decisions. This is the case in Germany, for example, where three big parties agreed in their coalition agreement on 24.11.21 to allow the acquisition of armed drones to protect their own soldiers (Koalitionsvertrag, p. 149). However, the coalition rejects LAWS which are completely beyond the control of humans and advocates an international ban on them (Koalitionsvertrag, p. 145).

Risk and uncertainty are relevant topics in science and generate an academic discourse that offers direct implications for action and practical applications. After a short theoretical introduction to the methodological concept SCOT, this will be further exemplified by the technology of LAWS and the controversy surrounding a ban of the same.

Section 3: Methodological Concept of SCOT

SCOT is a multidirectional approach characterized by the interplay of variation and selection (Pinch & Bijker, 1987, p. 22). The technological artifact or the socio-technical complex is thus examined for its "interpretative flexibility" (Pinch & Bijker, 1987, p. 22), meaning it is examined which variants of the object endure and which are abandoned during the selection process. Therefore, in the first step of the analysis, social groups are identified and described in detail, which have a relationship to the object of study. Further, the problems of each of such groups in relation to the object are considered. Doing so, it may be that a group is not homogeneous in its attitude and therefore must be divided into separate groups (Pinch & Bijker, 1987, p. 27). In focusing on each group's problems with the artifact, diverse conflicts become known, which may result in diverse approaches to solving the problem. Concluding, in the first step the interpretative flexibility is traced, i.e., it is shown that technological complexes are culturally constructed and interpreted. In the second step of the analysis closure mechanisms are shown, i.e., "the stabilization of an artifact and the 'disappearance' of problems" (Pinch & Bijker, 1987, p. 37). Crucial is not whether the problem has been solved, but whether the social groups regard it as such.

In conclusion, SCOT is a descriptive method that describes technologies through the attributions of all relevant social groups. These groups, in turn, are shaped by social, cultural, and political norms and values, which are reflected in the attributions. Which social groups are relevant in the context of LAWS, which perspectives and problems they project onto the technology and which solutions this could produce will be examined next. It is not possible to conduct an all-encompassing analysis within the scope of this paper since LAWS is not a single technological artifact but a socio-technical complex with actors involved all over the world. Nevertheless, the foundation for more comprehensive analyses will be laid and the SCOT method will be demonstrated in its application.

Section 4: Analysis of the Controversy of a ban on LAWS

In the following, it will be examined how the controversy surrounding a ban of LAWS is developing. The different meanings that social groups ascribe to the technology serve as a structuring device. Various groups identify risks and have different attitudes toward the technology, its ban and approaches to how it should be dealt with. Although the controversy is to be viewed from a 'German perspective', in today's globalized world this includes actors and perspectives worldwide. For it is also relevant for Germany how other states position themselves, what institutions such as the UN and other NGOs announce, what the international scientific community publishes and how the world market and the development of technology is promoted worldwide. Thus, before specifically German actors and their perspectives can be examined, it is essential to gain a sense of the overall situation worldwide. That is what this work is intended to contribute to.

What complicates discussions on LAWS is that it is a collective term for various weapon systems with autonomous functions with no uniform international definition. LAWS can be air defense weapons, cluster munitions and missiles, armed drones, anti-personnel weapons, mobile ground weapon systems, or mobile surface water and underwater weapon systems. Nevertheless, an attempt will be made to look at the technology at large, as well as the key players and their positions towards a ban.


1 'Global South' is used in social sciences as a politically correct substitute for formerly common terms like ‘Third World’ or ‘underdeveloped’ since it is supposedly less colonialist and hierarchical. However, the North/South distinction also insinuates, in my view, a weighting meaning. Uniform definitions of the term ‘Global South’ do not exist. Instead, there are different concepts. Personally, I am close to an interpretation of Alfred López, who describes the ‘Global South’ as a group of global subalterns: "The global South also marks the mutual recognition among the world's subalterns of their shared condition at the margins of the brave new neoliberal world of globalization" (López, 2007, p. 1). The ‘Global South’ according to López is thus not a list of nation states, but disempowered humans who are socially, politically and intellectually disadvantaged by neoliberal policies. In the context of whether LAWS are a case that includes the Global South, I answer yes. For I argue that it is primarily these subalterns who suffer the negative consequences of the technology if it remains unchecked.

Excerpt out of 14 pages


Analysis of the Controversy of a ban on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) based on the SCOT concept
Maastricht University  (Faculty of Social Science)
Science and Technology Studies (STS)
7 (dutch System)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems, SCOT, globals controversy
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Isabel Thoma (Author), 2021, Analysis of the Controversy of a ban on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) based on the SCOT concept, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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