Stephen Hawking, Steve Wozniak, Elon Musk call for ban on weaponising AI

Fears have been raised that armed UAVs could eventually become autonomous. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
Fears have been raised that armed UAVs could eventually become autonomous. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

More than 1,000 leading scientists, business people and robotics researchers have signed an open letter warning against the dangers of autonomous weapons, saying artificial intelligence could prompt a “third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear arms”.

Among the signatories is physicist Stephen Hawking, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk and activist Noam Chomsky.

The letter was published by the Future of Life Institute, a research group advocating human control of technology, and revealed at the 2015 International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Buenos Aires.

It explains that autonomous weapons are able to operate without human input, whereas remotely piloted drones and cruise missiles require human decision-making.

“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.

The automation of weaponry is already being tested around the world and is developing at a faster rate than laws and control measures.

“Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology has reached a point where the deployment of such systems is — practically if not legally — feasible within years, not decades.”

The letter questions logic behind the notion that autonomous weapons could replace soldiers, reducing casualties. It is suggested that while casualties may decline, the threshold for going to battle will be greatly reduced also.

Researchers have suggested that instead of creating offensive autonomous weapons, defensive examples of artificial intelligence could be more beneficial.

“There are many ways in which AI can make battlefields safer for humans, especially civilians, without creating new tools for killing people.”

An example of defensive artificial intelligence is minesweeping robots, which could prove equally beneficial on the battlefield.

The letter expresses that unlike traditional warfare, artificial intelligence proposes a low-cost option and is more accessible than previous military hardware.

“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,” the signatories warn.

According to Professor Hawking and the other signatories, a United Nations ban may be the only solution, creating the same stigma as existing laws governing chemical weapons.

Read the full letter below:

Autonomous Weapons: an Open Letter from AI & Robotics Researchers

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.