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Lib Dems want ‘Geneva Convention’ for use of tech in modern warfare

Deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson, wants an international treaty on use of technology in modern warfare, and warns of the dangers of new technology leaving people behind

Recent cyber attacks show there is a need for international laws on the use of technology in modern warfare, according to deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson.

Speaking at the Liberal Democrats’ party conference yesterday (16 September), Swinson said that technology has a significant impact on society, and that new laws are needed to deal with cases like cyber attacks and the use of drones.

During the party conference, the Lib Dems voted and agreed on promoting an international treaty on both principles and limits on the use of technology in modern warfare. “Recent cyber attacks on businesses and civil infrastructure traced to Russia show that cyber defence must be considered the new civil defence,” said Swinson.

“That is why Liberal Democrats are determined to take forward radical new ideas, including a new ‘Geneva Convention’ for modern warfare. It is paramount that the UK work with our partners to develop international rules that limit new technology such as artificial intelligence (AI), drones and cyber.”

She also criticised the Conservative government for “failing to stand up to bullies, be they in the Oval Office or the Kremlin”.

Swinson also used her speech to warn of the dangers of the technology revolution leading people being left behind, warning that modern technology like AI and robotics are creating “possibilities that just a few short years ago were the realm of science fiction”, but that it also creates new problems and risks.

“From a young age, we are told that if we study hard, if we work hard, in return we will earn a good wage so we can put food on the table and have a roof over our head,” she said, adding that the social contract has been broken at the “height of the technological revolution”. “If we don’t manage it properly, this fourth industrial revolution could make the social contract weaker still.”

AI is not a crystal ball

Particularly focusing on AI and algorithms, Swinson said that tech can help people make better decisions, and help clinicians improve diagnosis and medical treatment, but could also “embody the worst of human thinking” as it learns from people.

She said it is important to remember that AI is not “a crystal ball”:

“It reflects the information we give it – it holds a mirror up to society. So we shouldn’t be surprised if the artificial intelligence systems we create spew out racist or sexist decisions,” she said, and added: “It would be a terrible irony if the Conservatives spend all this time and energy trying to take back control, only for us to end up being ruled by unaccountable algorithms.”

Read more about new technologies and government

Swinson also used her speech to warn that while new tech can create numerous high-skilled jobs, it could also lead to those in lower-skilled jobs struggling and “turn us into minimum-wage drones”.

“There are stories of faceless algorithms bossing around warehouse staff to meet next-day delivery targets. Workers who avoid drinking water so they don’t lose time going to the loo. A woman who gave birth in a toilet cubicle out of fear of losing her job,” she said.

The Lib Dems have also set up a Technology and Artificial Intelligence Committee, which will be led by Sue Black, and aims to look at how to make the most of the benefits brought by technology, and ensure no one gets left behind.

Read more on IT for government and public sector

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