Elon Musk and several AI advocates agree on something, it turns out. They’re demanding a ban of autonomous weapons.
Over 100 robotics experts, including Elon Musk of SpaceX and Tesla and Alphabet’s Mustafa Suleyman, have signed an open letter asking the United Nations to ban the development and use of killer robots.
The letter states that “lethal autonomous weapons threaten to become the third revolution in warfare,” presumably following the development of automatic and atomic weapons, respectively. “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,” the letter warns.
With a sense of urgency, it notes that “we do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close.”
“We should not lose sight of the fact that, unlike other potential manifestations of AI which still remain in the realm of science fiction, autonomous weapons systems are on the cusp of development right now and have a very real potential to cause significant harm to innocent people along with global instability,” says the letter’s first signatory, Ryan Gariepy, of Clearpath Robotics, in a press statement. “The development of lethal autonomous weapons systems is unwise, unethical and should be banned on an international scale.”
Musk has become known for his urgency on the question of artificial intelligence, he recently referred to it as an “existential risk for human civilization“. This stance has been met with pushback from a wide variety of sources, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.
But in the push against AI weaponry, Musk has found common cause with advocates of the technology. Co-signer Yoshua Bengio, for example, is a French-Canadian deep learning expert behind the incubator Element AI. Bengio is concerned that a focus on weaponry would “hurt the further development of AI’s good applications.”
The letter, delivered at the opening of the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI) in Melbourne, Australia, wants lethal autonomous weapons systems added to the list of weapons banned under the UN’s convention on certain conventional weapons (CCW) ratified in 1983, which includes chemical and intentionally blinding laser weapons.
The letter demanding the ban of autonomous weapons:
It specifically points toward weapons like the Raytheon Phalanx System, a large machine gun-style weapon on U.S naval ships. Nicknamed R2-D2, the Phalanx is semi-autonomous. This means that while the Phalanx requires a person to turn on a switch before it chooses what to attack and when, it commits those actions by itself.
There’s also the Reaper drone, which has come under greater criticism for increased civilian deaths, and the QinteQ Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System (MAARS), a mobile robot that can be equipped with a M240B machine gun or a grenade launcher. If increased artificial intelligence on the battlefield is a Pandora’s box, it’s far too late to close it. Banning these weapons, like chemical ones before it, would be an uphill battle against an ingrained industry.
Hopefully Musk and his fellow signatories can redirect attention to more positive AI research, like healthcare and video buffering.
This article was originally written for and published by Popular Mechanics USA.