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Science | Geography | Design & Technology | Citizenship | RE

Threat of killer robots imminent, warns Musk

How can humanity control the terrifying prospect of autonomous weapons? Elon Musk has joined over 100 artificial intelligence experts in asking the UN to ban the use of “killer robots”. “We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close.” These are the ominous words in a letter sent to the UN in recent days by 116 robotics experts, including Elon Musk and the head of Google’s DeepMind. They were warning about the dangers of “lethal autonomous weapons” — technology which is designed to kill without human supervision, most likely using artificial intelligence (AI). The technology does not exist in this form yet, but countries including the USA, Russia and China are developing autonomous weapons — also known as killer robots. Some experts fear they could lead to a dystopian future, in which major countries compete in an arms race and governments feel forced to use mass surveillance on their own people. Picture, for example, a quadcopter, just one inch in diameter, carrying a small charge. Last year Stuart Russell, a professor of computer science, said these could exist within two or three years; a few trucks full of them could kill millions. Robotics professor Noel Sharkey has suggested another “nightmare” scenario: a nuclear deterrent could be placed on an unmanned system and “go completely ballistic”. This may sound like science fiction. But unmanned drones already exist. The next generation could use AI to target people without human action. “Really, no technological breakthroughs are required,” said Russell. “Every one of the component technologies is available in some form commercially.” Hoping to avoid this, Musk and his colleagues have asked the UN to add killer robots to the list of banned weapons under the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). The UN has agreed to debate it. But securing agreement could prove difficult. Many military leaders think the weapons could provide a cheap, effective way to protect their peoples, minimising the risk to their own troops. Russell has warned discussions of a ban could soon become “academic”. Terminated? Secure a global ban now, some say. Once some countries develop these weapons, others will get scared and make their own. The best way to ensure these awful weapons are never used is to get rid of them. It is in everyone’s interests to invest in this process. And it is possible to reach an effective agreement: look, for example, at the ban on biological weapons in 1972. A dangerous waste of time, retort realists. Organised criminals, terrorists and tyrants would ignore a ban, just as they do that on chemical weapons. The answer lies in strong nation states. Democracies such as the USA and UK must invest their energy in developing the best weapons available, so they can defend people against them and deter those prepared to use them for ill. KeywordsPandora’s Box - A container that held all the evils of the world, like sickness and famine, as well as the one way of enduring them: hope. Today it is also used as a metaphor for an action with severe unintended consequences.

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