The UN has been urged to ban the use of artificial intelligence technology in weapons in an open letter signed by a host of the world's leading academics and businessmen.
The ability to create weapons that can select and engage targets themselves - unlike remote-controlled drones or cruise missiles - is "feasible within years" according to the letter presented at the International Joint Conferences on Artificial Intelligence in Argentina yesterday.
Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, SpaceX entrepreneur Elon Musk and political scientist Noam Chomsky are among the signatories of the letter published by the Future of Life Institute, which investigates existential risks to humanity.
It said: "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.
"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."
While the letter concedes that AI could make battlefields safer for humans by replacing human soldiers with machines, it points out that this will also reduce leaders' reluctance to go into battle due to the potential loss of their men.
A global arms race would see the weapons quickly make their ways into the hands of terrorists, dictators and warlords, warns the letter.
"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," the scientists concluded.
International agreements that have successfully prohibited chemical and biological weapons provide a perfect framework to achieve a ban on autonomous weapons, according to the letter, and could help to avoid creating a "major public backlash" against a technology that could have major benefits for humanity.