What's in a Name?

Kerstin Vignard headshotKerstin Vignard

Kerstin Vignard makes sure the United Nations stays ahead of evolving weaponry

“Fully autonomous weapon systems, killer robots, ‘slaughter bots’ — none of these terms is particularly helpful,” says Kerstin Vignard ’96 MAIR of her work at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR). “Autonomy” is a crucial, but arguable, concept in the highly politicized debates about modern weapons. “Autonomy is a characteristic that can be applied to nearly any function of a system — from its ability to navigate to the process of target selection,” she says. “The question is, which of these functions should remain under human control?”

UNIDIR is mandated to help the world’s governments better think about, discuss, and make informed decisions about security and arms control issues. Vignard, as deputy director, leads work on emerging security issues, helping shape policy and regulation of evolving weapon systems, such as artificial intelligence and cyber. She has served as an advisor to UN expert groups focused on cybersecurity and, since 2013, has led the UNIDIR’s work on the weaponization of increasingly autonomous technologies.

Vignard was considering a career in public health when, during her MAIR practicum in Geneva, she had a chance to witness the negotiation of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. “I was struck by how skillful the negotiators were in that room,” she recalls, “and by how much personalities really matter, not only in influencing the outcome of negotiations, but how those outcomes are received back home.” Vignard networked her way into a job with UNIDIR and has been in Geneva ever since.

This article appeared in the spring 2018 print edition of Maxwell Perspective © Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail dlcooke@maxwell.syr.edu.