How AI could kick off the next military arms race

Steve Wozniak and Stephen Hawking sign open letter warning against creation of autonomous weapons

AI could kick start a military arms race to produce autonomous weapons, an open letter signed by more than 1,000 artificial intelligence experts and researchers has warned, calling for such weapons to be banned.

Prominent figures including Tesla's Elon Musk, Apple's Steve Wozniak, chief executive of Google DeepMind, and Professor Stephen Hawking signed the letter, which was presented at the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Argentina last week.

"AI technology has reached a point where the deployment of [autonomous weapons] 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," it says in the letter.

"The endpoint of this technology trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow. The key question for humanity today is whether to start a global AI arms race or to prevent it from starting."

AI used in a military context will be hard to monitor, the letter added, and could spark an arms race akin to that culminating in the atomic bomb, making it unwise to begin developing autonomous systems capable of selecting targets by themselves without human intervention.

"We need to make a decision today that will shape our future and determine whether we follow a path of good," said Toby Walsh, professor of AI at the University of New South Wales.

"We support the call by a number of different humanitarian organisations for a UN ban on offensive autonomous weapons, similar to the recent ban on blinding lasers."

Hawking and Wozniak have both spoken out about the potential dangers of AI in the past, with Stephen Hawking signing a similar open letter in January. This letter highlighted the need to ensure AI robots obey human commands.

In March, Wozniak told the Australian Financial Review of his worries that humans would one day be the pets of smart machines after robots oust humans from companies in order to run them more efficiently.

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