The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is pushing for a new international treaty to ban such weapons from the battlefields of the future.
Paul Hannon, head of Mines Action Canada, said the development of such autonomous weapons — primitive versions of the Terminator of Hollywood fame — signals a profound change in the very nature of warfare.
Hannon's organization is one of nine international groups that are calling on Canada to take the lead in the banning of the weapons, as it was in the campaign against landmines in the 1990s.
"It was not that long ago that the world considered the landmine to be the perfect soldier. It is now banned because of the humanitarian harm it has created," Hannon said Tuesday on Parliament Hill.
"Canada led the movement to ban that weapon; it is one of the most successful international treaties of our era."
It would be far better to squelch the development of the weapons before they are actually built and deployed, Hannon said: once the weaponization genie is out of the bottle, it is much harder to get it back in, he noted.
Hannon also said his group isn't opposed to the use of robotics by the military for non-combat uses such as transportation.
The coalition has no evidence to indicate any Canadian companies are working on such weaponry, and the Department of National Defence has provided assurances it hasn't contracted any research on the subject.
"That doesn't mean there aren't, because there's not a lot of transparency on this," Hannon said.
Six countries are known to be working on the technology: the United States, Britain, Israel, China, Russia and South Korea.
Autonomous weapons don't actually exist yet, but with the rapid advancements being made in robotics, there are troubling signs, said Peter Asaro, co-founder and of the New York-based International Committee for Robot Arms Control.
He cited the 2010 "flash crash" on New York Stock Exchange that was ignited by a frenzy of computerized trading that drove down the stock prices of major companies.
At least two companies have created prototypes of unmanned combat aircraft that are deemed to be autonomous. Another company has a partially autonomous tracking and machine-gun system on the border between North and South Korea.
Mary Wareham, a Washington based arms expert with Human Rights Watch, said one of the aircraft makers, BAE Systems, sponsored a recent two-day symposium on the weapons in London.
"I think they realize that if they don't show interest and at least agree to a be a bit more transparent about the systems that are being developed, then that will increase suspicion, so it's in their interest to be transparent," Wareham said.
Ian Kerr, a law and ethics professor at the University of Ottawa, said removing humans from the decision to kill people poses a serious moral and philosophical problem.