The rush to develop autonomous weapons will cause a global arms race, according to an open letter signed by over 1,000 artificial intelligence (AI) researchers, academics and computer scientists.
The letter has been signed by high-profile figures including physicist Stephen Hawking, Tesla chief executive Elon Musk and Apple co-founder Steve Wosniak, and argues AI has reached a point where deployment of robotic weapons is feasible within years.
Autonomous weapons are described in the letter as those that “select and engage targets without human intervention”.
This includes, for example, armed quadcopters searching and eliminating targets that meet pre-defined criteria, but not remote controlled missiles or piloted drones that still have human involvement.
The letter was presented at this year’s International Joint Conferences on AI in Buenos Aires, and argues that there are advantages to replacing human soldiers with machines but that doing so would “lower the threshold” for warfare.
“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,” it said.
“Autonomous weapons have been described as the third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear arms.”
The group paints a bleak picture of the future and claims that autonomous weapons will inevitably be open to exploitation.
“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,” the letter reads.
“Autonomous weapons are ideal for tasks such as assassinations, destabilising 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.”
However, not every expert shares the opinion that AI and robotic weapons are an inevitable force for evil.
Earlier this year, Linux founder Linus Torvalds spoke out against the assessments of Hawking, Wozniak and Musk that AI poses a threat to humans.
“It’s science fiction, and not very good sci-fi at that, in my opinion,” he said during a Q&A on Slashdot.
Nevertheless, AI is clearly a concern to many renowned figures. Microsoft founder Bill Gates indicated during a Reddit Ask Me Anything earlier this year that robots could become a threat to humanity.
“I am in the camp that is concerned about super intelligence. I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don’t understand why some people are not concerned,” he said.
Musk has also spoken out against AI, saying last year that it could become a real threat to humanity if left unchecked.
“I think we should be very careful about AI. If I were to guess what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that. So we need to be very careful,” he said.