Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk and Google artificial intelligence developer Mustafa Suleyman head a list of 116 tech experts who implored the United Nations to preemptively ban lethal autonomous weapons — in layman's terms, killer robots — before it's too late.
"Once developed, lethal autonomous weapons will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend," the experts warned, in a letter reported Monday. "These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways. We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora's box is opened, it will be hard to close."
Central to the experts' concern is how killer robots could change the risk calculations and casualties of war. While autonomous weapons may make battlefields safer for soldiers who can be removed from the scene, the same is not true for civilians who have the misfortune to be nearby. A killer robot's ethics will only be as good as its programming, which could vary widely depending on the government or terrorist organization controlling it. Autonomous weapons also raise troubling and complicated questions of accountability and recourse in the event of mistakes.
The letter asks the U.N. to add killer robots to list of banned conventional weapons, which currently includes landmines, intentionally blinding lasers, and other technologies "deemed to be excessively injurious or to have indiscriminate effects."