July 28th, 2015 by Stephen Hanley
Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak and Stephen Hawking have joined 1,000 other high profile scientist in signing a letter urging a ban on artificial intelligence weapons. The letter calling for an AI weapons ban was presented at the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
According to The Guardian, the letter states: “AI technology has reached a point where the deployment of [autonomous weapons] 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.”
The authors argue that AI can be used to make the battlefield a safer place for military personnel, but offensive weapons that operate on their own would lower the threshold of going to battle and result in greater loss of human life.
The authors suggest that if one military power started developing systems capable of selecting targets and operating autonomously without direct human control, it would start an arms race similar to what occurred after the atomic bomb was created. Unlike nuclear weapons, however, AI requires no specific hard-to-create materials and will be difficult to monitor.
“The endpoint of this technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow. The key question for humanity today is whether to start a global AI arms race or to prevent it from starting,” said the authors.
Toby Walsh, professor of AI at the University of New South Wales in Australia told the conference, “We need to make a decision today that will shape our future and determine whether we follow a path of good. We support the call by a number of different humanitarian organisations for a UN ban on offensive autonomous weapons, similar to the recent ban on blinding lasers.”
Musk and Hawking have warned before that AI is “our biggest existential threat” and that the development of full AI could “spell the end of the human race”. But others, including Wozniak have recently changed their minds on AI, with the Apple co-founder saying that robots would be good for humans, making them like the “family pet and taken care of all the time.”
While it is interesting that a lot of smart people recognize the danger presented by offensive weapons guided by computers, it is also interesting that many of them are currently working on the very same artificial intelligence systems for autonomous driving cars that can pass, brake and set their own speed without human intervention. Soon, we will be able to summon our cars via our smart phone or Apple watch.
There have been many calls to ban nuclear weapons over the decades. None has been successful. And anyone who thinks governments around the globe are not already working on AI weapons systems is naive. Nations will not agree to ban any weapon they think will give them a military advantage, which is the reason the United States has shamelessly refused to sign the global treaty banning land mines for decades.
At a UN conference discussing the future of weaponry including so-called “killer robots” in Geneva in April , the UK opposed a ban on the development of autonomous weapons, despite calls from various pressure groups, including the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. Clearly if Britain thinks it’s OK to develop such weapons, China, Russia and the US aren’t going to be greatly influenced by some letter, no matter how many notables signed it.
The late Marshall McLuhan is credited with this thought: “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” A killing machine that is enabled by artificial intelligence is just a tool — a tool that will shape the future of combat.
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Photo credit: Maurizio Gambarini/Corbis via The Guardian
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