AI Academics Boycott University Over 'Killer Robots'

An unmanned military robot operates on a beach during a training exercise organized by the US Navy

An unmanned military robot operates on a beach during a training exercise organized by the US Navy

The boycott, organised by University of New South Wales (UNSW) Scientia Professor of artificial intelligence Toby Walsh, follows open letters released in 2015 and 2017 that warned of the dangers of autonomous weapons.

AI and robotics researchers from the University of Cambridge, Cornell University, the University of California, Berkeley and 52 other institutions have hatched plans to stop all contact with the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) over a new research centre.

According to the letter, the boycott will encompass "all collaborations with any part of KAIST until such time as the President of KAIST provides assurances, which we have sought but not received, that the Center will not develop autonomous weapons lacking meaningful human control".

The letter, also signed by top experts on deep-learning and robotics, was released ahead of next Monday's meeting in Geneva by 123 United Nations member countries on the challenges posed by lethal autonomous weapons, which critics describe as "killer robots".

Despots and terrorists who acquire these weapons could use them against innocent populations, removing any ethical constraints that regular fighters might face, the researchers added.

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Scientists are furious that Kaist University in South Korea has launched a new AI lab working with weapons manufacturer Hanwha Systems. "Please tell me specifically what types of systems these people are planning on researching that warrant a boycott", says Arkin, who notes he's not against a ban but believes this one is premature. "We can not tolerate this".

Its president Sing Sung-chul said they have "no intention to develop lethal autonomous weapons systems or killer robots".

The boycott includes refraining from visiting Kaist, hosting visitors from the university or cooperating on its research programs until it pledges to refrain from developing AI weapons that lack "meaningful human control". "If developed, autonomous weapons will [.] permit war to be fought faster and at a scale greater than ever before", said Walsh in a press statement.

"This Pandora's box will be hard to close if it is opened", reads their open letter from the school.

In an upcoming meeting in Geneva next week, 123 member states of the United Nations will discuss the challenges posed by lethal autonomous weapons.

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While we can all probably agree that killer robots are bad, making decisions about what to do about their development has proved to be hard.

Another open letter also signed by Musk, late physicist Stephen Hawking, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, and thousands of researchers in 2015 called for a ban on the development of autonomous weapons, fearing that a reality of armed quadcopters - created to search and eliminate people - is just years away. At the convention, experts from across the globe will discuss how best to contain the threat posed to worldwide security by the development of AI-controlled weapons, with fears that the creation of "killer robots" will create new forms of warfare.

In an open letter, the group cited media reports that the "Research Centre for the Convergence of National Defence and Artificial Intelligence" would be involved in the development of autonomous armaments.

But the participants in the boycott, who hail from 30 countries, have vowed not to visit KAIST or work with its staff unless it assures that the weapons it works on will have "meaningful human control".

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