Tesla’s Elon Musk, Google’s Mustafa Suleyman are among 116 of the world’s leading robotics and artificial intelligence pioneers who have come together to write an open letter to the UN asking for a ban on the development and use of autonomous weaponry. In December 2016 the UN voted to begin formal talks over the future of such weapons, including tanks, drones and automated machine guns. So far, 19 member states have called for an outright ban on such weapons. Toby Walsh, a professor of artificial intelligence at the University of New South Wales, Australia, is one of the organisers behind the letter. Quoted in the UK’s Independent newspaper, Prof Walsh explained, ‘Nearly every technology can be used for good and bad, and artificial intelligence is no different. It can help tackle many of the pressing problems facing society today: inequality and poverty, the challenges posed by climate change and the ongoing global financial crisis. ‘However, the same technology can also be used in autonomous weapons to industrialise war. We need to make decisions today choosing which of these futures we want.’ Released by The Future Life Institute the letter says: ‘Lethal autonomous weapons threaten to become the third revolution in warfare. Once developed, they will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend. ‘These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways. We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close. We therefore implore the High Contracting Parties to find a way to protect us all from these dangers.’ The letter was presented in Melbourne, Australia, at the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI), which draws many of the world’s top artificial intelligence researchers. In 2015, at the last IJCAI meeting, Walsh released another open letter calling on countries to avoid engaging in an AI arms race. To date, that previous letter, which had the physicist Stephen Hawking as a co signatory, has been signed by over 20 000 people, including over 3 100 AI/robotics researchers. The UN’s Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons had unanimously agreed to start formal discussions on the prohibition of autonomous weapons. The group was due to meet on 21 August, but has reportedly been delayed until November, according to the online magazine Fortune.
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