Killer robot concept

Boycott university over autonomous weapons lab, academics say

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Dozens of academics from nearly 30 countries have written an open letter calling for a boycott of a university over its role in a research programme into autonomous weapons systems.

Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), the nation’s first research-focused science and engineering institution, has established a new lab partnered with leading defence manufacturer Hanwha Systems. Hanwha Systems has come under criticism for its manufacture of cluster munitions, which are forbidden by the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

It has been reported that the KAIST-Hanwha centre is intended to “develop artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to be applied to military weapons, joining the global competition to develop autonomous arms”. It will be focused on, among other areas, AI-based command and decision systems, AI-based smart aircraft training systems and AI-based smart object tracking and recognition technology.

In the letter, addressed to the president of KAIST, more than 50 academics have called for a boycott of both KAIST and Hanwha Systems in order to help prevent an “arms race” in autonomous weapons.

They say that they will not be collaborating with the university, and will decline to host visitors from KAIST until the president of KAIST can confirm that the centre will not be involved in the development of autonomous weapons capable of operating without “meaningful human control”.

“If developed, autonomous weapons will be the third revolution in warfare. They will permit war to be fought faster and at a scale greater than ever before,” the academics wrote.

“They have the potential to be weapons of terror. Despots and terrorists could use them against innocent populations, removing any ethical restraints. This Pandora’s Box will be hard to close if it is opened. As with other technologies banned in the past, like blinding lasers, we can simply decide not to develop them.

“We urge KAIST to follow this path, and work instead on uses of AI to improve and not harm human lives.”

In response, the president of KAIST, Sung-Chul Shin, has stated that the university will not assist with the development of “lethal autonomous weapons systems and killer robots”.

“As an academic institution, we value human rights and ethical standards to a very high degree,” said Shin in a statement. “I reaffirm once again that KAIST will not conduct any research activities counter to human dignity, including autonomous weapons lacking meaningful human control.”

According to Human Rights Watch, more than a dozen countries are in the process of developing autonomous weapons systems, including the US, UK, Russia and China; South Korean companies are also developing and manufacturing autonomous combat systems.

In August 2017, nearly 120 founders of robotics and artificial intelligence companies signed an open letter to the UN calling for a halt on the development of autonomous weapons. A UN ban on autonomous weapons, similar to those on biological and chemical weapons, would put a stop to the development and stockpiling of weapons capable of automatically identifying and firing at human and non-human targets. Such a ban was discussed at the UN Convention of Conventional Weapons last year.

More than 20 countries have joined calls for a ban on these systems, although the Russian government has clearly stated its opposition to such a policy. Next week, a UN meeting in Geneva will continue discussions on controls on autonomous weapons systems.

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