by Rebecca Merrett

AI researchers, scientists want autonomous weapons banned

Jul 27, 2015
Technology Industry

Technologists and leaders in artificial intelligence research worldwide have signed a letter that urges the United Nations to ban the development and use of autonomous weapons.

The letter was signed by more than 2000 leaders in the field, including SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, physicist Stephen Hawking, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, and Google DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis.

The letter raises the concern of highly autonomous, AI weapons getting into the wrong hands and becoming so ubiquitous or mass produced that it will be difficult to control.

“Unlike nuclear weapons, they require no costly or hard-to-obtain raw materials, so they will become ubiquitous and cheap for all significant military powers to mass-produce,” the letter states.

“It will only be a matter of time until they appear on the black market and in the hands of terrorists, dictators wishing to better control their populace, warlords wishing to perpetrate ethnic cleansing, etc.

“If any major military power pushes ahead with AI weapon development, a global arms race is virtually inevitable, and the endpoint of this technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow.”

The technology that can make some level of decisions when it comes to life and death on the battlefield, following certain criteria for targets to attack, is already feasibly possible to deploy within years, the letter states.

The letter also points out that having robots replace humans on the battlefield could also lower the threshold for going to war – as it’s easier to make the decision to start a war when humans are not physically battling, which might not encourage resolving conflicts through non-violent means first.

This warfare technology stands up against the likes of nuclear arms in its power to have havoc impact on humanity, and if not careful it could lead to unintended consequences that are irreversible.

“Just as most chemists and biologists have no interest in building chemical or biological weapons, most AI researchers have no interest in building AI weapons — and do not want others to tarnish their field by doing so, potentially creating a major public backlash against AI that curtails its future societal benefits,” the letter states.

“Indeed, chemists and biologists have broadly supported international agreements that have successfully prohibited chemical and biological weapons, just as most physicists supported the treaties banning space-based nuclear weapons and blinding laser weapons.”

Toby Walsh, AI researcher at National ICT Australia, said putting in safeguards today will shape our future and put us on a path in the right direction.

“Artificial intelligence is a technology that can be used to help tackle many of the pressing problems facing society today – inequality and poverty, the rising cost of health care, the impact of global warming … but it can also be used to inflict unnecessary harm.

“We can get it right at this early stage, or we can stand idly by and witness the birth of a new era of warfare. Frankly, that’s not something many of us want to see.

“Our call to action is simple: ban offensive autonomous weapons, and in doing so, securing a safe future for us all,” he said.

The open letter will be released tomorrow at the International Joint Conferences on Artificial Intelligence 2015.

In January this year, more than 1000 technologists and researchers made a public oath to develop the AI responsibly with humanity top of mind.