If you worry at night about the prospect of robots someday evolving into killing machines brutally taking out human life, then the United Nations is right there with you. Your fears aren’t just the result of an overactive imagination or binge-watching the Terminator.
On December 16, 2016, participants at an international disarmament conference in Geneva just took one step closer to formally banning “killer robots” – weapons that can select and attack targets without human intervention. 123 nations at the International Convention on Conventional Weapons agreed to start official discussions next year on the dangers of autonomous weapons systems and stop them before they’re ever created. By UN standards, this means they’re moving the discussion out of the realm of mere talk and into formal action.
“The governments meeting in Geneva took an important step toward stemming the development of killer robots, but there is no time to lose” Steve Goose, co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, said according to Human Rights Watch. “Once these weapons exist, there will be no stopping them. The time to act on a pre-emptive ban is now.”
Throughout the discussion was an undercurrent of worry over how killer robots could be used to carry out destruction on massive scale and fundamentally change the nature of war. They could become agents for genocide, mass bombings, assassinations, and more. Speakers at the convention worried of the prospect that removing humans from war would potentially remove the compassion for human lives.
It’s hoped that with new resolutions from the UN, we can completely avoid a new AI arms race between nations. For instance, in August, China disclosed research into the use of automation in its next generation of cruise missiles so that commanders can control missiles in real-time or make updates to their mission on the fly.
“China’s plans for weapons and artificial intelligence may be terrifying, but no more terrifying than similar efforts by the U.S., Russia, Israel, and others,” Goose said according to Live Science. “The U.S. is farther along in this field than any other nation. Most advanced militaries are pursuing ever-greater autonomy in weapons. Killer robots would come in all sizes and shapes, including deadly miniaturized versions that could attack in huge swarms, and would operate from the air, from the ground, from the sea, and underwater.”
The discussion was prompted after mounting pressure from leaders in the science and technology industries who have been sounding the alarm bells about the dangers of AI for warfare. A group of concerned scientists, researchers and academics, including Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking submitted an open letter calling for regulation now before the AI arms race begins.
“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,” the letter stated.