Artificial Intelligence

AI industry warns against autonomous weapons

EPA/CHRISTOPHER JUE

Researchers from companies active in artificial intelligence and robotics can assist the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems, established by the United Nations Conference of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). An open letter, signed by 116 founders from 26 countries, reiterates concern about the possibility for technology of the next generation to be misused against civilians and fuel the arms race.

The first on the list is Tiberio Caetano, founder and chief scientist at Ambiata of Australia. Among other notable signatories are Mustafa Suleyman, founder and head of Applied AI in Google Inc.–owned DeepMind Technologies Ltd., and Elon Musk, who is chief and technology head of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. – SpaceX, and chief executive of Tesla Motors Inc. The representatives of the industry warned company programs could easily be repurposed to develop weapons, and expressed regret the body’s first meeting, scheduled for Monday in Melbourne, had to be canceled as few countries responded to the invitation to fund the initiative.

“Lethal autonomous weapons threaten to become the third revolution in warfare. Once developed, they will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend. These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways. We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close,” the document states.

The letter was published on the Future of Life Institute’s website. A plea that was written two years before has so far been supported by 21,000 people, out of which more than 3,100 researchers. The message stresses armed autonomous systems attack without human intervention, and notes examples like programmed quadcopters searching for human targets that fit set criteria.

Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close, authors say.

“Many arguments have been made for and against autonomous weapons, for example that replacing human soldiers by machines is good by reducing casualties for the owner but bad by thereby lowering the threshold for going to battle… 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. 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 grim letter adds and calls for a ban.

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