International Law Governance of Autonomous Weapon Systems And The Turn To Ethics

By Dr. Thompson Chengeta,

Faculty of Social Science, University of Southampton

I.  Introduction

The cutting-edge technology of autonomous weapon systems (AWS) – robotic weapons that once activated, are able to make the decision as to who to target or harm without any further human intervention or control[1] – presents several legal, ethical, and security challenges.  There is no agreement among states on how this emerging technology should be governed. Do we need new laws or are existing ones adequate?  If existing laws are inadequate to govern AWS, should the international community turn to ethics to fill the gaps? These are the questions that are answered in this piece.

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Cyborgs: Natural Bodies, Unnatural Parts, and the Legal Person

By Alexis Dyschkant*


The phrase “one’s person” has an important legal role because of the unique rights an individual has over her person and because of the prohibition on wrongfully contacting another’s person.  Isolating the boundary of a person is crucial for determining when (or if) someone has wrongfully contacted an individual.  Historically, “one’s person” has been limited to “one’s natural body” and some, but not all, artificial attachments to one’s natural body.  The cyborg, a creature composed of artificial and natural parts, challenges this conception of a “person” because it tests the distinction between the natural body and an artificial part.  Artificial objects, such as prosthetics, are so closely attached to bodies as to be considered a part of one’s person.  However, claiming that personhood extends to things attached to our natural bodies oversimplifies the complicated interrelation between natural objects and artificial objects in the cyborg.  If our person is no longer limited to our natural body, then we must understand personhood in a way that includes the cyborg.  I argue that the composition of a body does not determine the composition of a person.  One’s person consists to the extent of one’s agency.


One commits battery when she causes a “harmful or offensive contact with the person of the other.”[1]  Contact with a person has not been limited to contact with that person’s natural body.  For example, grabbing an object out of one’s hand is battery if the object is so closely connected to someone as to be considered a part of his body.[2]  In particular, objects which serve to substitute for a part of one’s natural body may be considered a part of one’s body, such as interference with a cane.[3]  Disability aids, such as prosthetics, wheelchairs, or hearing aids, are paradigm examples of artificial objects that are viewed as intimately attached to one’s body.  Interference with these objects is likely to be considered contact with a person.

The Restatement of Torts gives a guideline as to what is considered an “intimate connection”:There are some things such as clothing or a cane . . . which are so intimately connected with one’s body as to be universally regarded as part of the person.  On the other hand, there may be things which are attached to one’s body with a connection so slight that they are not so regarded. [4] At the heart of the discussion is the physical relationship between the artificial object and the natural body.  The artificial object needs to be attached to the natural body, and this attachment comes in degrees of intimacy.  At some point, the object is so closely attached we commonly refer to the object as part of one’s person.  Physical attachment to the body is the most significant factor in considering the role of an artificial object to one’s person.  For example, it is unlikely that touching a prosthetic limb that is completely detached from a body would constitute contact with a person.  Being attached to a physical body is paramount to determining whether an artificial object is considered a part of one’s person.


The problem with focusing on whether an artificial object is attached to a body is that the concept of “attachment” creates a conceptual barrier between “thing attached” and “thing attached to.”  Attachment can come in degrees, but it necessarily includes a relationship between two separate entities.  The image of the body, wholly organic and natural, and its artificial parts creates a dichotomy between the original, real body and its subsequent alterations.[5]  This image may accurately describe common representations of prosthetics and disability products, such as wheelchairs and canes, which can clearly be separated from one’s body.  But, while these kinds of artificial objects are common, it is a mistake to think that this is the norm.  The cyborg is more common than many believe.

A cyborg, simply put, is a creature that consists of both natural and artificial parts.[6]  Recent developments in science, called “Neuroprosthetics,” suggest that a science fiction conception of the cyborg is not entirely fiction.[7]  As the name suggests, Neuroprosthetics are artificial objects that are directly controlled by one’s nervous system—similar to how a natural arm is controlled.  Just in the last few months, we have seen the creation and private use of “Neuroprosthetic exoskeletons,” mechanical additions to a human body, such as a mechanical limb, which are integrated into one’s body.[8]  These exoskeletons respond directly to neuro-information in what has been called a “brain-computer interface.”[9]  Not only are these Neuroprosthetics not easily detached from one’s body like traditional prosthetics, but they challenge the inherent dichotomy between “thing attached” and “thing attached to.”  Neuroprosthetics become conceptually and biologically woven into the natural fabric of one’s body.  At one end, there is a clearly mechanical exoskeleton composed entirely of artificial parts and at the other end there is a natural, organic brain.  Somewhere between these two points, there is the woven interconnection between organic and artificial, but locating the “attachment” is difficult, and potentially, impossible.

But one need not look to modern technology to find cyborgs.  We are all cyborgs.  If the cyborg is as pervasive in society, then there is an even stronger motivation to distance personhood from biology.  The hidden cyborg is someone who has become so accustomed to her artificial parts that she fails to see herself as a cyborg at all.  The image of the natural human body as distinct from artificiality has become a thing of the past.  The most obvious examples of this are everyday objects like eyeglasses or cosmetics.  Tattoos are permanent additions to one’s body that can only be removed by removing organic material.  At the most extreme end of artificiality is the role of devices into which one can “off-load” his cognition, such as smartphones.  Some argue that our ability to save information contributed to the growth of our neuro-processing ability.[10]  Importantly, some of these artificial parts are not attached to a natural body.  Glasses merely rest on a body.  Tattoos are not “affixed” to one’s body, but literally woven into one’s skin.  Computing devices are entirely detached from our natural body.  This suggests that the role of artificial objects in one’s person extends beyond attachment.


There are three possible responses to the existence of the cyborg.  One is to insist that one’s person is composed of a natural body and attached objects.  A second response, advanced by Gowri Ramachandran, is to reconceive of the body as a “social body.”[11]  I advance a third response which distances the “person” from the “body” and associates one’s person with one’s agency.

Salvaging the Natural Body-Artificial Part Distinction

One may insist that there remains an important difference between the natural body and the artificial object attached to the body.  Tattoos do not occur naturally; one must add a tattoo.  Similarly, one must attach a Neuroprosthetic to a natural body.  The fact that the location at which the exoskeleton is attached is difficult to locate does not mean that there is no point of attachment.  Moreover, consider the exoskeleton or the tattoo a paradigm example of the most intimate attachment.  However, this response blurs the role that “attachment” to one’s person is meant to play.  If the location of the attachment is lost and, thus the boundary between the artificial and the natural, then what distinguishes it from natural attachments such as donated organs other than the fact that it is artificial?  Moreover, even naturally occurring parts of one’s body can also become detached, such as temporary organ removal during surgery or a lost tooth that is going to be reattached.  The fact that functionally-equivalent artificial objects and natural objects can be attached and detached in similar ways suggests that a concept of “one’s person” should not depend on the natural-artificial distinction or the attached-detached distinction.[12]

The Social Body

Ramachandran offers a solution to the cyborg problem by introducing the “social body” which consists of those objects, possibly natural or artificial, which are important to our daily lives.[13]  One’s social body may include objects which blur the line between natural and artificial.  “Pacemakers, imaginary artificial organs of the future, and ink in a tattoo are often thought of as part of the social body, and they are neither organic nor human.”[14]  Ramachandran’s portrayal of the social body de-emphasizes the importance of attachment by focusing on the function of an object.  While this view is indeed a step in the right direction, it does not go far enough to distance the conception of one’s “person” from one’s “body.”  As she points out, the role of artificial objects in the social body is rhetoric that can potentially be identified as a replacement for natural body parts.[15]  The term “social body” invokes a pretense, as if it is an invented term used to give artificial objects a more privileged role in our lives.  Arguably, changing the natural body to a social body continues to place some body at the center of personhood.

Moving Beyond the Body

The view advanced here responds to the introduction of the exoskeleton-bearing cyborg and the hidden cyborg by distancing the body from the person entirely.  What the cyborg shows us is that the body can be composed of any kind of part but the person is necessarily the agent which controls, benefits from, and depends upon these parts.  Human tissue, animal tissue, or mechanical “tissue” all allow a person to exercise their agency and interact with the world.  The type of body which a person controls need not be relevant.  Hence, determining when one has made contact with “the person of another” does not necessarily depend on the naturalness or composition of one’s body, but on the relationship between the object contacted and the person’s agency.  We can imagine a technologically advanced future in which people retain control over parts detached entirely from their body or in which one’s person is dispersed across great spaces.  Neuroprosthetics are the first phase of this development; they are prosthetics that are not only integrated with our bodies, but also with our cognition.  They directly respond to electro-chemical signals put off by our brains.  What constitutes a person, in these cases, is that all of these parts compose a single agent capable of controlling or sensing them in the same way that we currently control or sense our natural parts.  The distinction between person and body is not new, but throughout much of history the person has been limited, or contained in, the body.  The development of the cyborg represents an exciting change.  It is now possible to conceive of the person extending physically beyond the body via attachments, integrations, extensions, and even completely detached objects.[16]

* J.D., College of Law, Ph.D., philosophy, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, expected 2015.

[1] Restatement (Second) of Torts § 13 (1965).

[2] Fisher v. Carrousel Motor Hotel, Inc., 424 S.W.2d 627, 629 (Tex. 1967).

[3] Respublica v. De Longchamps, 1 U.S. (1 Dall.) 111, 114 (1784).

[4] Restatement (Second) of Torts § 18 cmt. c (1965) (emphasis added).

[5] See Donna J. Haraway, A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s, in The Haraway Reader 7, 11 (1985) (discussing three theoretical boundary breakdowns in modern society between human and animal, organism and machine, and physical and non-physical).

[6] Id.

[7]E.g., Miguel A. L. Nicolelis, Mind in Motion, Sci. Am, Sept. 2012, at 58; Emilia Mikołajewska & Dariusz Mikołajewski, Neuroprostheses for Increasing Disabled Patients’ Mobility and Control, 21 Advances Clinical & Experimental Med. 263 (2012), available at

[8] Chris Wickham, UK Paraplegic Woman First to Take Robotic Suit Home, Reuters (Sept. 4, 2012),

[9] Mikołajewska & Mikołajewski, supra note 7, at 264.

[10] Cary Wolfe, What is Posthumanism? 35 (2010).

[11] Gowri Ramachandran, Assault and Battery on Property, 44 Loy. L.A. L. Rev. 253, 259 (2010).

[12] Haraway, supra note 5, at 11–13.

[13] Ramachandran, supra note 11, at 263–66.

[14] Id. at 267.

[15] Id. at 275.

[16] Ramachandran, for example, willingly includes smartphones as part of the social body in the form of an “exo-brain.”  Id. at 275–76.  The introduction of external information processing has led some philosophers, such as extended mind theorists and transhumanists, to include the smartphone as a part of one’s person.  Id.