This post is also available in: heעברית (Hebrew)

“Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology has reached a point where the deployment of [autonomous] 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,” so wrote technology and scientific geniuses in an open letter, signed by 1,000 signatories, which was presented at the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Buenos Aires.

The researchers acknowledge that sending robots into war could produce the positive result of reducing casualties. However, they write, it lowers the threshold for going to battle in the first place. “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,” they write. “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 message is not that AI is bad in itself, but that there’s a danger of using it in a way that is diametrically opposed to how it should be used – which is for good, for healing and for alleviating human suffering – but a select few would “tarnish” a field that, like biology or chemistry, isn’t meant for or interested in producing weapons . Any negative use of this knowledge could only lead the public to forever stand against the field, therefore denying it the chance to really be of benefit in the future, they write.

One of the signatories, Professor Bart Selman of Cornell University, said the purpose is to get AI researchers and developers to pay more attention to AI safety. The letter, he says, for policymakers and the general public, is meant to be informative but not alarmist.

The United Nations has recently debated the potential for a global ban on lethal autonomous weapons -to which Britain officially opposed. The British Foreign Office stated earlier this year that “at present, we do not see the need for a prohibition on the use of Laws, as international humanitarian law already provides sufficient regulation for this area“.

Subscribe to our newsletter.