Mystery Machines

2 October 2020
Mystery Machines

The Black Box, Unlocked: UNIDIR Publishes New Study on Autonomous Weapons and Military AI

GENEVA, 22 SEPTEMBER 2020 — The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) today published “The Black Box, Unlocked,” a comprehensive study on an issue at the heart of ongoing discussions on the use of advanced artificial intelligence and autonomous weapons in warfare: predictability and understandability.

Despite the centrality of what is sometimes referred to as the “black box dilemma” of autonomous weapons and military AI, there continues to be significant ambiguity as to what exactly it means for an intelligent system to be “predictable” and “understandable”. Nor has there been sufficient clarity on the role of appropriate AI predictability and understandability in the adherence to existing international law, let alone proposed potential future rules, in the use of autonomy and AI in warfare—or how these appropriate thresholds could be measured and enforced.

“The aim of this study is not only to demistify these ambiguities and complex challenges by bridging the science with the policy,” said UNIDIR Associate Researcher Arthur Holland Michel, the report’s author, “but also to inspire cutting-edge new thinking on how to overcome them.”

“The Black Box, Unlocked” illustrates the technical fundamentals of AI predictability and understandability, illuminates the role of appropriate predictability and understandability throughout the lifecycle of all forms of military AI, and points to a variety of key avenues for action by policy groups, militaries, and technical communities seeking to address the black box dilemma of autonomous weapons and military AI.

“The Black Box, Unlocked” is a timely and accessible contribution to international discussions on lethal autonomous weapon systems and other forms of military AI, shedding new light on key issues and challenges to be addressed to ensure the safe and lawful use of AI across military activities,” said Dr. Renata Dwan, Director of UNIDIR.

UNIDIR is a voluntarily funded, autonomous institute within the United Nations. One of the few policy institutes worldwide focusing on disarmament, UNIDIR generates knowledge and promotes dialogue and action on disarmament and security. Based in Geneva, UNIDIR assists the international community to develop the practical, innovative ideas needed to find solutions to critical security problems. For more information about UNIDIR, visit:

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Aaron J. Buckley             Arthur Holland Michel
Strategic Communications
            Associate Researcher
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