More than a thousand artificial intelligence researchers have co-signed an open letter calling for a ban on autonomous weapons, or “killer robots.”
As The Verge reports, they have been joined by hundreds more sympathetic signatories from outside the industry — including Tesla CEO Elon Musk, high-profile scientist Stephen Hawking, and social theorist Noam Chomsky.
Autonomous weapons capable of attacking targets without human intervention don’t yet exist, but that hasn’t prevented fierce debate about their potential creation and use. Opponents fear that their invention would have extremely dangerous consequences for humanity, would be liable for misuse, and raise difficult ethical questions.
“Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology has reached a point,” the letter, published by the Future of Life Insitute, reads, “where the deployment of such systems is — practically if not legally — feasible within years, not decades, and the stakes are high: autonomous weapons have been described as the third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear arms.”
It goes on to describe them as the “Kalashnikovs of tomorrow,” warning that “they will become ubiquitous and cheap for all significant military powers to mass-produce.” The consequences of this will be dire: “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. Autonomous weapons are ideal for tasks such as assassinations, destabilizing nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group.”
The letter cautions that “if any major military power pushes ahead with AI weapon development, a global arms race is virtually inevitable.” As such, it urges international pre-emptive action against the technology, concluding: “We believe that AI has great potential to benefit humanity in many ways, and that the goal of the field should be to do so. Starting a military AI arms race is a bad idea, and should be prevented by a ban on offensive autonomous weapons beyond meaningful human control.”
Other notable signatories to the letter include philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, Skype cofounder Jaan Talinn, and Google DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis (along with 39 other Google employees).
In April, the British government refused to back a ban on building killer robots. A spokesperson said that “at present, we do not see the need for a prohibition on the use of Laws [Lethal autonomous weapons systems], as international humanitarian law already provides sufficient regulation for this area.” They added: “The United Kingdom is not developing lethal autonomous weapons systems, and the operation of weapons systems by the UK armed forces will always be under human oversight and control.”
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