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7 Nov, 2017 19:00

‘Weapons of mass destruction:’ AI experts urge govts to ban ‘killer robots’ in apocalyptic message

‘Weapons of mass destruction:’ AI experts urge govts to ban ‘killer robots’ in apocalyptic message

Hundreds of artificial intelligence (AI) specialists from Australia and Canada urge their governments to “stand against weaponizing AI.” The experts warn that a lack of action in this field would allow machines – not people – to decide who lives or dies.

Hundreds of members of the Australian and Canadian AI communities signed open letters to their governments, urging them to join the campaign against what they called “killer robots” ahead of a UN meeting on weapons scheduled to take place later this month. The open letter addressed to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been signed by 122 AI scientists. The letter sent to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has as many as 216 signatories.

The AI experts called on their respective governments “to announce support for the call to ban lethal autonomous weapons systems at the upcoming United Nations Conference on the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).” They also encouraged the state officials to “commit to working with other states to conclude a new international agreement” on this issue.

“Lethal autonomous weapons systems that remove meaningful human control from determining the legitimacy of targets and deploying lethal force sit on the wrong side of a clear moral line,” both letters argued. The experts went on to say that machines “lack morality and mortality” so they should not be granted “life and death powers over humans.”

They also called the development of autonomous weapon systems “the third revolution in warfare” that demands “heightened moral attention.”“If developed, they will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever before, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend,” the experts warned.

Scientia Professor of AI at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Toby Walsh, who was one of the activists behind the open letter to the Australian government, said that the weapons that the experts are warning against are not some sci-fi themed “terminators” but much simpler, if not less deadly, equipment that is already under development in many countries but still escapes the attention of the international community. He also warned that their development could provoke a new arms race.

“These will be weapons of mass destruction. One programmer will be able to control a whole army. Every other weapon of mass destruction has been banned: chemical weapons, biological weapons, even nuclear weapons. We must add autonomous weapons to the list of weapons that are morally unacceptable to use,” he said, as cited by the UNSW press release.

The letters were sent to the Canadian and Australian governments on November 2, a day after the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking warned that robots could one day become “a new form of life” capable of replicating itself. “If people design computer viruses, someone will design AI that improves and replicates itself. This will be a new form of life that outperforms humans,” he said at that time, warning that “AI may replace humans.”

It is not the first time the physicist has made apocalyptic prognoses concerning AI. In March he also urged world leaders to keep technology under control before it destroys humanity. “A super intelligent AI will be extremely good at accomplishing its goals, and if those goals aren’t aligned with ours, we’re in trouble,” he said at that time.

In August, more than a hundred of the world’s leading experts in the fields of AI and robotics addressed the UN in an open letter that also called for the ban on the use of lethal autonomous weapons. They also justified the necessity of such a ban by specifically likening “killer robots” to weapons of mass destruction.

The list of signatories to that letter included Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX as well as Alphabet’s Mustafa Suleyman. The letter warned the autonomous weapons could fall into the hands of “despots and terrorists” and eventually be used against innocent people. “Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close,” the letter states.

Notably, soon after the experts’ letter to the UN was published, the UK said it would oppose a preemptive ban on “killer robots.” A spokesman for the British Ministry of Defence said that the UK would abstain from the ban, adding that all its weapons would “always remain under human control,” even if “they become increasingly high-tech.”

In December 2016, formal discussions on autonomous lethal weapons were agreed to by 123 UN member nations, 19 of whom have already called for a ban. However, the UN delayed a meeting to discuss the issue scheduled for August 21, due to insufficient funding.