“Ladies and gentlemen, I have news for you: the robots are not taking over the world. Humans are still in charge,” announced Amandeep Gill, India’s disarmament ambassador, at the United Nations Convention on Conventional Weapons. The Guardian provided some details about the conference’s discussion of autonomous weapon systems that many nations are on the verge of developing, which can identify and eliminate targets without human control.
Activists such as UC Berkeley professor Stuart Russell, an artificial intelligence expert, disagree with Gill. They warn that time is running out and that a ban on autonomous weapons is urgently needed.
Russell and the Future of Life Institute have produced the chilling short video Slaughterbots, depicting an attack by swarms of drones as small as a bird. It was presented at an event at the UN convention hosted by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. “This short film is just more than speculation,” Russell says. “It shows the results of integrating and militarizing technologies that we already have.”
Elon Musk and other tech luminaries have previously urged the UN to ban autonomous weapons in an open letter to the organization, referring to it as the “third revolution in warfare.” Just recently, more than 200 Canadian and upwards of 100 Australian scientists signed open letters to Canada’s Justin Trudeau and Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull, urging support of the killer robot ban.
“The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is not trying to stifle innovation in artificial intelligence and robotics and it does not wish to ban autonomous systems in the civilian or military world,” said Noel Sharkey of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control. “Rather we see an urgent need to prevent automation of the critical functions for selecting targets and applying violent force without human deliberation and to ensure meaningful human control for every attack.”
“Countries do not have time … to waste just talking about this subject,” added Mary Wareham of Human Rights Watch.
With more than 70 countries participating, this month’s conference marked an important first step towards curtailing fully robotic weapons, but many industry experts say quicker action is needed. They hope for a historic international treaty such as the current ban on chemical and biological weapons. “The bioweapon ban created such a powerful stigma that, despite treaty cheating, we have almost no bioterror attacks today and almost all biotech funding is civilian,” said MIT Professor Max Tegmark.
Toby Walsh of the University of South Wales calls killer robots “weapons of mass destruction,” but he’s confident that a ban will eventually come about. “My only concern is whether [countries] have the courage of conviction to do it now, or whether we will have to wait for people to die first,” he said.