Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Open Letter on the Banning of Autonomous Weapons Systems


The Future of Life Institute has published an Open Letter calling for the banning of Autonomous Weapons Systems. 

Here is the text of that open letter....

Autonomous weapons select and engage targets without human intervention. They might include, for example, armed quadcopters that can search for and eliminate people meeting certain pre-defined criteria, but do not include cruise missiles or remotely piloted drones for which humans make all targeting decisions. Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology has reached a point where the deployment of such systems is — practically if not legally — feasible within years, not decades, and the stakes are high: autonomous weapons have been described as the third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear arms.

Many arguments have been made for and against autonomous weapons, for example that replacing human soldiers by machines is good by reducing casualties for the owner but bad by thereby lowering the threshold for going to battle. The key question for humanity today is whether to start a global AI arms race or to prevent it from starting. 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. Unlike nuclear weapons, they require no costly or hard-to-obtain raw materials, so they will become ubiquitous and cheap for all significant military powers to mass-produce. It will only be a matter of time until they appear on the black market and in the hands of terrorists, dictators wishing to better control their populace, warlords wishing to perpetrate ethnic cleansing, etc. Autonomous weapons are ideal for tasks such as assassinations, destabilizing 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. There are many ways in which AI can make battlefields safer for humans, especially civilians, without creating new tools for killing people.

Just as most chemists and biologists have no interest in building chemical or biological weapons, most AI researchers have no interest in building AI weapons — and do not want others to tarnish their field by doing so, potentially creating a major public backlash against AI that curtails its future societal benefits. Indeed, chemists and biologists have broadly supported international agreements that have successfully prohibited chemical and biological weapons, just as most physicists supported the treaties banning space-based nuclear weapons and blinding laser weapons.
In summary, 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.

You can view the list of signatories here http://futureoflife.org/AI/open_letter_autonomous_weapons   (including Stephen Hawking, Skype founder Jaan Tallinn and Apple Co-Founder Steve Wozniak). 

Several other organisations are also calling for the banning of autonomous weapons systems, such as the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, and Article 36.

Whilst I share a lot of their concerns, I suspect that at this point lethal autonomous weapons systems are inevitable, and the debate over whether they should be developed should have happened at this level a long time ago, and not on the eve of their deployment into the field. The discussion around LAWS, whilst it is vital for the future of warfare, also seems to ignore the elephant in the room -  that is the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (also sometimes called drones) mainly by the USA in a wide variety of lethal situations, which has been outside of the normal theatre of war (usually in the name of the war on terror) and can only be described as assassinations or targeted killings. Whilst the automation of weapons systems does raise unique issues, it seems that we need to be getting right the issues regarding unmanned but not fully autonomous weapons systems first.  The people of Pakistan do not care that the drones flying overhead terrorising their children are manned or operating autonomously - the effect for them is the same.

In order to more fully understand the issues raised on these emerging technologies it is worth looking at the work of  respected ethicist Pat Lin, who was invited to speak at the UN deliberations on LAWS at the five day meeting in Geneva in April 2015 on the Convention for Certain Weapons.  A copy of Pat's presentation "The right to life and the Marten's clause" is available online to read as well as the presentations of others to the meeting. The article "Do Killer Robots Violate Human Rights" that Pat wrote for The Atlantic about these discussions and the issues that they raised is very interesting reading