‘Killer robots’ that can decide whether people live or die must be banned, warn hundreds of experts

'These will be weapons of mass destruction. One programmer will be able to control a whole army'

Aatif Sulleyman
Tuesday 07 November 2017 13:21 GMT
Picture: (iStock/Getty Images)

Hundreds of artificial intelligence experts have urged the Canadian and Australian governments to ban “killer robots”.

They say that delegating life-or-death decisions to machines crosses “a clear moral line”, and that the development of autonomous weapons will result in machines, rather than people, deciding who lives and who dies.

Such systems, including drones, military robots and unmanned vehicles, should be treated in the same way as chemical weapons, biological weapons and nuclear weapons, they say.

An open letter addressed to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been signed by 122 AI researchers, while an open letter sent to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has 216 signatories.

Toby Walsh, the organiser of the Australian letter and Scientia Professor of AI at UNSW Sydney, said, “The Canadian AI research community is clear: we must not permit AI to target or kill without meaningful human control.

“Delegating life-or-death decisions to machines crosses a fundamental moral line – no matter which side builds or uses them. Playing Russian roulette with the lives of others can never be justified merely on the basis of efficacy. This is not only a fundamental issue of human rights. The decision whether to ban or engage autonomous weapons goes to the core of our humanity.”

Both letters call for the governments of the respective countries to announce their “support for the call to ban lethal autonomous weapons systems at the upcoming United Nations Conference on the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW)”, and to “commit to working with other states to conclude a new international agreement that achieves this objective”.

Mr Walsh continued, “It’s not the Terminator that experts in AI and robotics like myself are worried about but much simpler technologies currently under development, and only a few years away from deployment. Without a ban, there will be an arms race to develop increasingly capable autonomous weapons.

“These will be weapons of mass destruction. One programmer will be able to control a whole army. Every other weapon of mass destruction has been banned: chemical weapons, biological weapons, even nuclear weapons. We must add autonomous weapons to the list of weapons that are morally unacceptable to use.”

The CCW meetings at the United Nations are set to take place later this month.

“If developed, [killer robots] will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever before, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend,” the open letters say.

“The deadly consequence of this is that machines – not people – will determine who lives and dies.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in