Soldier holding weapon

Elon Musk and other experts call for UN ban on autonomous weapons

Image credit: Dreamstime

116 founders of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) companies have signed an open letter to the United Nations calling for a ban on the development of autonomous weapons.

According to Human Rights Watch, more than a dozen countries are in the process of developing autonomous weapons systems, including the US, the UK, Russia and China.

“Lethal autonomous weapons threaten to become the third revolution in warfare,” the letter says. “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.”

The letter was released at of the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Melbourne, ahead of a UN meeting focused on autonomous weapons.

The signatories claim that unlike many potential applications of AI, which remain decades away, autonomous weapons are “on the cusp of development right now”, and could cause immediate damage. The technology is described as a “Pandora’s box” which “will be hard to close”.

Signatories range from across 26 countries, and include Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, and Mustafa Suleyman, founder of DeepMind, later acquired by Google’s parent company, Alphabet. It was organised by Professor Toby Walsh, an AI expert at the University of New South Wales, Australia.

Professor Walsh previously organised a similar letter in 2015 – signed by cosmologist Stephen Hawking and Apple co-founder Steven Wozniak – warning of the dangers of autonomous weapons systems.

According to Walsh, a decisive UN ban on autonomous weapons would be similar to that on landmines and chemical weapons, which are forbidden by the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons due to the harm that they cause civilians. The founders call for “morally wrong” lethal autonomous weapons systems to be added to the list of internationally banned weapons.

Some autonomous weapons systems already exist, although they are a long way from the unstoppable robot soldiers made famous by science-fiction works such as the Terminator franchise. Samsung’s SGR-A1 for instance, is a type of automatically firing gun designed to assist South Korean soldiers stationed in the Demilitarised Zone between North and South Korea.

Musk has repeatedly called for the rapid development of AI to be more closely monitored and regulated, calling it humanity’s “biggest existential threat” and recently describing it as “vastly more risk than North Korea”. Along with his ambitious ventures in electric cars, ‘hyperloops’ and reusable rockets, Musk is behind a recent start-up, Neuralink, dedicated to connecting computers with the human brain through implants. It is suggested this could allow for more direct interfacing with computers, and could improve memory.

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