Conference ‘Imaginations of Autonomy’

On 22-24 May 2024, an international and interdisciplinary conference entitled ‘Imaginations of Autonomy: On Humans, AI-Based Weapon Systems and Responsibility at Machine Speed‘ took place at the Chair of Media Sociology at the University of Paderborn.

In a short report on the website of the Stop Killer Robots coalition, young research fellows from the Global South, invited by the MEHUCO research network, summarise the conference as follows: 
‘From the 22nd to the 24th of May 2024 leading scholars studying autonomous weapons systems gathered in the small German city of Paderborn to discuss how autonomy in weapons systems and human-machine interaction concerning AI-based weapons systems means, particularly in relation to the concept of responsibility. This conference, organized by Jutta Weber and Jens Hälterlein at Paderborn University (Germany), was the inaugural conference of the interdisciplinary competence network ‘Meaningful Human Control — Autonomous Weapon Systems between Regulation and Reflexion’. It brought together scholars from various disciplines and representatives of Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) to explore the intricate dynamics between artificial intelligence, military technology, and human accountability.

As autonomous weapon systems (AWS) progressively exhibit advanced automation capabilities, the line between machine and human agency is likely to become increasingly blurred. These systems, while highly autonomous, still rely heavily on human-made infrastructures such as big data and machine learning algorithms and on human initiation and possible interventions. This integration raises pressing questions about the limits of machine autonomy and the enduring necessity of human oversight in AWS decision-making processes. The fundamental question of responsibility, however, remains as accountability cannot be transferred to machines but must reside with human beings even as avenues of state, organizational, and corporate responsibility continue to be explored. The conference aimed to delve into these complexities, highlighting the multifaceted nature of AWS and the inherent challenges in ensuring meaningful human control. 

It turns out that the notion of responsible AI and the purported autonomy of weapon systems are not merely technical achievements but are deeply rooted in technoscientific and political imaginations. These imaginations have material consequences in terms of reinforcing promises of rapid, precision warfare and influencing global politics by promoting military solutions over diplomatic and peaceful conflict resolution. This conference, therefore, sought to foster interdisciplinary dialogue incorporating diverse global perspectives, while encouraging particular insights from the Global South, to better understand the distributed and situational agency within military human-machine configurations and to challenge the prevailing discourses on the potential and promises of AWS with a more nuanced and reflective approach.

The conference’s programme was structured around four themes, each exploring a different aspect of AWS and their broader socio-political context. The four themes featured presentations and paper submissions from leading experts, setting the stage for a comprehensive exploration of the challenges and opportunities presented by AWS.’

  1. Autonomy, Subjectivities, and Inequalities
  2. Decision-Making (and Targeting) Systems beyond Autonomous Weapon Systems
  3. Imaginaries of War in the Age of Algorithms 
  4. The Urgent Need for Regulation 

(Ishmael Bhila, Swati Malik, Adriano Nogueira Drumond Lopes, Gabriel Udoh (2024): Imaginations of Autonomy: On Humans, AI-based Weapon Systems and Responsibility at Machine Speed.)

The full report can be found here: