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28th July 2015

Autonomous weapons: an open letter from AI and robotics researchers

The International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI) is currently taking place in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Today an open letter was officially announced at the conference, warning against the dangers of killer robots and a military AI arms race.

 

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The letter is signed by over a thousand experts in the AI field. In addition to these researchers, the signatories also include high profile names such as Elon Musk, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Google DeepMind's CEO Demis Hassabis, Professor Stephen Hawking, philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett and Noam Chomsky who was voted the world's top public intellectual in a 2005 poll. It reads as follows:

Autonomous weapons select and engage targets without human intervention. They might include, for example, armed quadcopters that can search for and eliminate people meeting certain pre-defined criteria, but do not include cruise missiles or remotely piloted drones for which humans make all targeting decisions. Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology has reached a point 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.

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. The key question for humanity today is whether to start a global AI arms race or to prevent it from starting. 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. 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. We therefore believe that a military AI arms race would not be beneficial for humanity. There are many ways in which AI can make battlefields safer for humans, especially civilians, without creating new tools for killing people.

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. 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.

In summary, 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.

 

The full list of signatories is available at http://futureoflife.org/AI/open_letter_autonomous_weapons.

This letter follows growing concern in recent years over the use of robots and AI. In 2013, a survey by the University of Massachusetts Amherst showed that a majority of Americans, across the political spectrum, opposed the outsourcing of lethal military and defence targeting decisions to machines.

Last year, a report by Human Rights Watch warned that fully autonomous weapons, or "killer robots," would jeopardise basic human rights, whether used in wartime or for law enforcement. Human Rights Watch is a founding member and coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots – a coalition of 51 nongovernmental organisations calling for a preemptive ban on the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons.

 

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