A who’s who of CEOs, engineers and scientists from the technology industry have signed a global pledge – co-organised by UNSW’s Toby Walsh – to “neither participate in nor support the development, manufacture, trade, or use of lethal autonomous weapons”.
Released in Stockholm at the 2018 International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI), the world’s leading artificial intelligence (AI) research meeting with over 5000 attendees, the pledge was signed by 150 companies and more than 2400 individuals from 90 countries working in AI and robotics.
Corporate signatories include Google DeepMind, University College London, the XPRIZE Foundation, ClearPath Robotics/OTTO Motors, the European Association for AI, and the Swedish AI Society. Individuals include head of research at Google.ai Jeff Dean, AI pioneers Stuart Russell, Yoshua Bengio, Anca Dragan and Toby Walsh, and British Labour MP Alex Sobel.
The full text of the pledge
"Artificial intelligence (AI) is poised to play an increasing role in military systems. There is an urgent opportunity and necessity for citizens, policymakers, and leaders to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable uses of AI.
"In this light, we the undersigned agree that the decision to take a human life should never be delegated to a machine. There is a moral component to this position, that we should not allow machines to make life-taking decisions for which others – or nobody – will be culpable.
"There is also a powerful pragmatic argument: lethal autonomous weapons, selecting and engaging targets without human intervention, would be dangerously destabilizing for every country and individual. 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.
"Moreover, 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. Stigmatizing and preventing such an arms race should be a high priority for national and global security.
"We, the undersigned, call upon governments and government leaders to create a future with strong international norms, regulations and laws against lethal autonomous weapons. These currently being absent, we opt to hold ourselves to a high standard: we will neither participate in nor support the development, manufacture, trade, or use of lethal autonomous weapons. We ask that technology companies and organizations, as well as leaders, policymakers, and other individuals, join us in this pledge."
The pledge, led by the Future of Life Institute, challenges governments, academia and industry to follow its lead, saying: “We, the undersigned, call upon governments and government leaders to create a future with strong international norms, regulations and laws against lethal autonomous weapons ... We ask that technology companies and organisations, as well as leaders, policymakers, and other individuals, join us in this pledge.”
Toby Walsh, Scientia Professor of Artificial Intelligence at UNSW’s School of Computer Science and Engineering, who is in Stockholm, pointed out the thorny ethical issues surrounding autonomous weapons: “We cannot hand over the decision as to who lives and who dies to machines. They do not have the ethics to do so. I encourage you and your organisations to pledge to ensure that war does not become more terrible in this way.”
Max Tegmark, a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and president of the Future of Life Institute, called on others to join the pledge.
“I’m excited to see AI leaders shifting from talk to action, implementing a policy that politicians have thus far failed to put into effect,” Professor Tegmark said. “AI has huge potential to help the world – if we stigmatise and prevent its abuse. AI weapons that autonomously decide to kill people are as disgusting and destabilising as bioweapons, and should be dealt with in the same way.”
Lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) – also dubbed ‘killer robots’ – are weapons that can identify, target, and kill a person, without a human ‘in the loop’. That is, no person makes the final decision to authorise lethal force: the decision and authorisation about whether someone will die is left to the autonomous weapons system. This does not include today’s drones, which are under human control, nor autonomous systems that merely defend against other weapons.
The pledge begins with the statement: “Artificial intelligence is poised to play an increasing role in military systems. There is an urgent opportunity and necessity for citizens, policymakers, and leaders to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable uses of AI.”
Ryan Gariepy, founder and CTO of both Clearpath Robotics and OTTO Motors, and who is a strong opponent of lethal autonomous weapons, echoed the call: “Clearpath continues to believe that the proliferation of lethal autonomous weapon systems remains a clear and present danger to the citizens of every country in the world. No nation will be safe, no matter how powerful.
“Clearpath’s concerns are shared by a wide variety of other key autonomous systems companies and developers, and we hope that governments around the world decide to invest their time and effort into autonomous systems which make their populations healthier, safer, and more productive instead of systems whose sole use is the deployment of lethal force.”
In addition to the troubling ethical questions surrounding lethal autonomous weapons, many advocates of an international ban on LAWS are concerned that they will be difficult to control – easier to hack, more likely to end up on the black market, and easier for terrorists and despots to obtain – which could become destabilising for all countries. Such a scenario is played out in the FLI-released video Slaughterbots.
In December 2016, the United Nations’ Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) began formal discussion on LAWS. Of the countries attending the Conference, 26 have announced support for some type of ban, including China.
Such a ban is not without precedent: biological weapons and chemical weapons were also banned, not only for ethical and humanitarian reasons, but also for the destabilising threat they posed.
The next UN meeting on LAWS will be held in next month, and signatories of the pledge hope it will encourage lawmakers to develop a commitment to an international agreement between countries.
As the pledge states: “We, the undersigned, call upon governments and government leaders to create a future with strong international norms, regulations and laws against lethal autonomous weapons ... We ask that technology companies and organisations, as well as leaders, policymakers, and other individuals, join us in this pledge.”
Video and stills
- PLEDGE: Full list of the 150 corporate and more than 2400 individual signatories to the pledge.
- VIDEO: ‘Slaughterbots’, which shows a fictional dystopian future of killer drones swarming the world. Copyright cleared for international use. It was produced by the Future of Life Institute.
- STILLS: High-res photos of Toby Walsh with a Baxter robot. Picture credit: Grant Turner