Leading Australian Artificial Intelligence Expert Professor Toby Walsh, along with Google DeepMind, the XPRIZE Foundation and Elon Musk make up just a few of the 2,500+ signatories of a global pledge to "neither participate in nor support the development, manufacture, trade, or use of lethal autonomous weapons."
Released in Stockholm at the 2018 International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI), the world's leading AI research meeting with over 5,000 attendees, the pledge was signed by 150 companies and more than 2,400 individuals from 90 countries working in AI and robotics.
Corporate signatories include Google DeepMind, University College London, the XPRIZE Foundation, ClearPath Robotics/OTTO Motors, the European Association for AI, and the Swedish AI Society. ClearPath Robotics/OTTO Motors, the European Association for AI, and the Swedish AI Society. Individuals include head of research at Google.ai Jeff Dean, AI pioneers Stuart Russell, Yoshua Bengio, Anca Dragan and Toby Walsh, and British Labour MP Alex Sobel.
The pledge, organised by the Future of Life Institute, challenges governments, academia and industry to follow their lead.
“We, the undersigned, call upon governments and government leaders to create a future with strong international norms, regulations and laws against lethal autonomous weapons. … We ask that technology companies and organisations, as well as leaders, policymakers, and other individuals, join us in this pledge.”
Max Tegmark, a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and president of the Future of Life Institute, announced the pledge.
"I'm excited to see AI leaders shifting from talk to action, implementing a policy that politicians have thus far failed to put into effect,” Tegmark said. “AI has huge potential to help the world – if we stigmatise and prevent its abuse. AI weapons that autonomously decide to kill people are as disgusting and destabilising as bioweapons, and should be dealt with in the same way."
Lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) – also dubbed "killer robots" – are weapons that can identify, target, and kill a person, without a human "in-the-loop". That is, no person makes the final decision to authorise lethal force: the decision and authorisation about whether or not someone will die is left to the autonomous weapons system.
This does not include today's drones, which are under human control; nor autonomous systems that merely defend against other weapons.
The pledge begins with the following statement.
"Artificial intelligence is poised to play an increasing role in military systems. There is an urgent opportunity and necessity for citizens, policymakers, and leaders to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable uses of AI."
Another key organiser of the pledge, Toby Walsh, a professor of artificial intelligence at Australia’s University of New South Wales in Sydney, points out the thorny ethical issues surrounding LAWS. I hosted a talk with Walsh at the recent Sydney Writers Festival and can comfirm, he knows his stuff.
"We cannot hand over the decision as to who lives and who dies to machines. They do not have the ethics to do so. I encourage you and your organizations to pledge to ensure that war does not become more terrible in this way," Walsh says of the pledge.
Ryan Gariepy, Founder and CTO of both Clearpath Robotics and OTTO Motors, a strong opponent of lethal autonomous weapons, echoed the call.
"Clearpath continues to believe that the proliferation of lethal autonomous weapon systems remains a clear and present danger to the citizens of every country in the world. No nation will be safe, no matter how powerful," Gariepy said.
"Clearpath’s concerns are shared by a wide variety of other key autonomous systems companies and developers, and we hope that governments around the world decide to invest their time and effort into autonomous systems which make their populations healthier, safer, and more productive instead of systems whose sole use is the deployment of lethal force."
As well as the troubling (understatement, I know) ethical questions surrounding lethal autonomous weapons, many advocates of an international ban on LAWS are concerned that they will be hard to control – easier to hack, more likely to end up on the black market, and easier for terrorists and despots to obtain – which could become destabilising for all countries.
This is played out in the FLI-released video Slaughterbots.
In December 2016, the United Nations' Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) began formal discussion on LAWS. 26 countries attending the Conference have so far announced support for some type of ban, including China.
Such a ban is not without precedent: biological weapons and chemical weapons were also banned, not only for ethical and humanitarian reasons, but also for the destabilising threat they posed.
The next UN meeting on LAWS will be held in August 2018, and signatories of the pledge hope their pledge will encourage lawmakers to develop a commitment to an international agreement between countries.
Here's the full pledge:
Artificial intelligence (AI) is poised to play an increasing role in military systems. There is an urgent opportunity and necessity for citizens, policymakers, and leaders to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable uses of AI.
In this light, we the undersigned agree that the decision to take a human life should never be delegated to a machine. There is a moral component to this position, that we should not allow machines to make life-taking decisions for which others – or nobody – will be culpable.
There is also a powerful pragmatic argument: lethal autonomous weapons, selecting and engaging targets without human intervention, would be dangerously destabilizing for every country and individual. Thousands of AI researchers agree that by removing the risk, attributability, and difficulty of taking human lives, lethal autonomous weapons could become powerful instruments of violence and oppression, especially when linked to surveillance and data systems.
Moreover, lethal autonomous weapons have characteristics quite different from nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and the unilateral actions of a single group could too easily spark an arms race that the international community lacks the technical tools and global governance systems to manage. Stigmatizing and preventing such an arms race should be a high priority for national and global security.
We, the undersigned, call upon governments and government leaders to create a future with strong international norms, regulations and laws against lethal autonomous weapons. These currently being absent, we opt to hold ourselves to a high standard: we will neither participate in nor support the development, manufacture, trade, or use of lethal autonomous weapons. We ask that technology companies and organizations, as well as leaders, policymakers, and other individuals, join us in this pledge.
An open letter signed by 116 founders of robotics and artificial intelligence companies from 26 countries - including Elon Musk and Mustafa Suleyman - has urged the United Nations to ban lethal autonomous weapons (often called "killer robots") internationally.
Both those who signed the letter, and leading Australian experts have spoken out about the move.