Open letter calls UN to ban ‘killer robots’ but experts sceptical it can be enforced

Over 100 leaders of major robotics and artificial intelligence companies have signed an open letter urging the UN to prevent an arms race involving lethal autonomous weapons, and to protect civilians from conflicts that are yet to be fully comprehended.


The letter’s signatories include Tesla founder Elon Musk and the head of Applied AI at Google’s DeepMind, Mustafa Suleyman.

But Dr Malcolm Davis from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said he was sceptical that any sort of ban can be enforced effectively.

“Our authoritarian adversaries, like Russia and China, and rogue states like North Korea are not going to sign up to this ban,” he said.

“They use lethal autonomous weapons on a large scale and they use them ruthlessly.

“Even if we sign up to the ban and we don’t have them our adversaries would have them, and that will leave us at a severe disadvantage.”

Dr Davis added that there would be no way to effectively verify or monitor the use of such technology.

“It’s going to be encumbent upon us to maintain our edge on this technology because we know our adversaries will be doing the same,” he said.

“There is the potential for an autonomous arms race of sorts that we can’t avoid.”

The UN was supposed to discuss the issue this week, but the talks have been pushed back to November.

Weapons of terror

Currently, 19 of its 123 member countries agree an outright ban should be in place, but Australia is not one of them.

Toby Walsh, Scientia Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, was one of the main organisers of the letter.

It was released at the opening of the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI 2017) in Melbourne, the world’s pre-eminent gathering of top experts in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics

“[Automated weapons] will completely change the speed and efficiency with which armies can kill the other side,” he said.

“They will be weapons of terror, weapons that get used by rogue nations and terrorists against civilian populations.

“Australia has been rather unhelpful in the discussion so far surrounding autonomous weapons. It’s a great disappointment, because Australia has often led the way on discussion about nuclear non-proliferation treaties and weapon bans, yet this time we seem to be more careful to follow the US lead.”

Stuart Russell, the founder of technology company Bayesian Logic Inc, was among the letter’s 116 signatories.

He said lethal autonomous weapons, including swarms of micro drones, should be urgently banned before a wave of weapons of mass destruction gets out of control.

“I’m not talking about drones which are now 30 feet long aircraft, but little tiny things that are one inch in diameter that you can buy in a toy shop, and with the right software and high explosives can become a lethal weapon,” he said.

But like Dr Malcolm Davis, Mr Russell said he was “not at all confident” the UN will act as a result of the letter.

“I still think we’re on a knife edge,” he said. “It depends on the US, the UK, Russia and China. I’m not even sure if it’s 50/50 that we’ll have a treaty.”