Design Engineering

World’s top tech leaders amongst thousands signing pledge to curb development on killer robots

Devin Jones   

Automation Defense Robots

Activists hope UN discussion moves to formal direct negotiations by next year to produce a pre-emptive treaty banning killer robots by 2019.


The pledge was signed by more than 2,460 people/photo courtesy of Jean Zar

While the threat of autonomous robots taking over the world was once relegated to television and the mind of James Cameron, a recent pledge signed by the world’s top tech leaders promises not to develop killer robots of any kind.

Signed by more than 160 organizations, 2,460 people and 90 countries—chief among them Skype founder Jann Tallinn, Elon Musk and founders of the Google DeepMind project—the pledge signed last week promised to not participate in the development of lethal autonomous robots.

“Thousands of AI researchers agree that by removing the risk, attributability, and difficulty of taking human lives, lethal autonomous weapons could become powerful instruments of violence and oppression, especially when linked to surveillance and data systems,” the pledge says.

The Future of Life Organization—a Boston-based institute—helped organized the pledge, which follows calls for a pre-emptive ban on the technology after scientists from the University of California presented a disturbing short film at the Convention for Conventional Weapons.


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According to the Human Rights Watch, this technology is currently being developed in nations such as the United States, China, Israel, South Korea, Russia and the United Kingdom. While government representatives from the UK have stated that they aren’t developing lethal autonomous robot technology, on Monday July 16 UK defense secretary Gavin Williamson unveiled plans for a new £2 billion RAF fighter jet that can fly without a pilot.

“Lethal autonomous weapons have characteristics quite different from nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and the unilateral actions of a single group could too easily spark an arms race that the international community lacks the technical tools and global governance systems to manage,” the pledge adds.

While none of the countries that signed the pledge currently have lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) in place, doesn’t mean versions of these systems aren’t patrolling borders. Take the Samsung Techwin SGR-A1 for example: it currently patrols the South Korean border and has the ability to autonomously fire when sensing an infiltrator. Additionally, the Russian and British government both have semi-autonomous military vehicles in the T14 Armata tank and the BAE Systems’ Taranis aircraft. Both are currently human-controlled but are also capable of semi-autonomous operation.

In speaking with The Guardian, Yoshua Bengio – an AI expert at the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms, stated that while not perfect, these types of pledges do have a history of working, pointing to the 1997 treaty banning the international production of landmines. Despite the United States never officially signing, the treaty and public pressure were enough to cause American companies to stop production of landmines.


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