Autonomous A.I.-controlled weapons: Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and thousands more plead for ban

Terminator, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk
Promo image Terminator Wiki/Wikimedia/Wikimedia

Trying to avoid equivalent of nuclear arms race for 21st century

As soon as you discuss a problem that has been covered by science-fiction, many people immediately decide that it can't possibly be a real issue and that it's somewhat 'silly' to even consider it. I hope you'll be smarter than that, dear reader, because if history has shown us anything, it's that yesterday's fiction can be tomorrow's reality, and that things change rapidly. Not everything in fiction becomes true, or comes to pass as quickly as some would want (where's my jetpack is the usual refrain), but some things do.

The Wright Brothers created the first working airplane that could carry someone in 1903, and barely more than a decade later planes were being used in World War I, and then very heavily later in WWII. The the Concorde was flying at twice the speed of sound in 1969, not even a complete lifetime later.

So from this (left) to this (right) in a few decades...

Wright brothers plane and concordeWikimedia/Public Domain

In my own lifetime, the internet went from a military and academic network connecting a few thousand very slow (by today's standard) computers to something that ties billions of people together, most of them carrying a wirelessly connected super-computer in their pockets. This giant network now hosts high-definition video and billions and billions of pages of text and billions of images that can be searched in less than a second for free with a narrow-A.I. like Google, making the needly in the haystack easy to find. Talk about rapid progress!

But when science-fiction becomes reality (like self-driving cars or pocket super-computers) we rapidly get used to it and take it for granted, even if a decade or two prior nobody could have predicted quite how fast an extensively things would be changing.

The same thing is about to happen with military uses of artificial intelligence (A.I.), and a very distinguished group of thousands of the smartest people you'll find (including 1,632 AI/robotics researchers) have written an open letter asking for a ban on "offensive autonomous weapons that are beyond meaningful human control".

Here's the text of the open letter.

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.

Yikes, now I'll have nightmares where I'm being chased by armed quadcopters...

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.

Here's just a fraction of the signatories (notice, among other distinguished names that you may recognize, Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Dennett, etc):

AI Weapons letter signatoriesFLI/Screen capture

If autonomous weapons that can kill without human intervention don't sound like a good idea to you, I hope that you'll sign the open letter here. Thanks in advance.

Via Future of Life Institute

Autonomous A.I.-controlled weapons: Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and thousands more plead for ban
Not exactly Skynet, but nipping it in the bud is the whole point.

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