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Open Letter On Militarization of Artificial Intelligence Surprisingly Sane

Open Letter On Militarization of Artificial Intelligence Surprisingly Sane

A recent letter posted by the Future of Life Institute warns of the dangers of weaponizing robotics and computers

Author: Trevor Quirk/Tuesday, July 28, 2015/Categories: natural history, sustainability

Though this correspondent dislikes the inflated portent surrounding the "dangers" of artificial intelligence and robotics (especially when terms like "singularity" get used), the recent open letter signed by over 1,000 scientists warning about the militarization of AI and robotics is totally appropriate and sane.

One can dispute rather peculiar claims that artificial intelligence (a confusing phrase in its own right) could achieve self-awareness and (thus?) make humanity superfluous. But the intent of this letter is quite different, and important. Weaponized robotics is something that could prove disastrous, and it is not something the majority of the world's relevant specialists are interested in doing. The letter's signatories include Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak, Stephen Hawking and Noam Chomsky.

My one caveat: though the letter distinguishes the analyzed technology from nuclear weapons, the reality is that computer control (or, if you prefer, AI) and nuclear weaponry are quite intertwined, and pose a much greater threat to the species than any putative technology mentioned. Read Eric Schlosser's chilling book -- Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety -- for a crash course on this threat.

Here's the 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.


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