Autonomous Weapons Development & Artificial Intelligence

A few days ago, the Future of Life Institute published an open letter penned by AI & Robotics Researchers, which can be found here.

The letter warns about the dangers of developing an artificial intelligence weapons system which will be capable of engaging targets without human intervention. Should a military power begin investing in such autonomous technology, it would spark another arms race.

“Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology has reached a point where the deployment of such systems is – practically if not legally – feasible within years, not decades and the stakes are high: autonomous weapons have been described as the third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear arms.”





Although the use of robots makes the battlefield a safer place for military personnel, they still require a human to give them orders. No drone or missile is launched without a person behind the control boards. And unlike the nuclear arms, which was dependent on limited and traceable elements,  development of an autonomous weapons system will be hard to track. A driven individual can employ the use of 3D printers and motors found on the internet to create a gun-toting drone. Developing a brain for the system, would be nearly impossible to trace. Anyone with a computer and programming skills can turn the remote-controlled drone into an autonomous weapon capable of seeking and engaging targets on its own.

The authors of the letter ominously predict that AI weaponry will become the AK-47 of the future:

 “If any major military power pushes ahead with AI weapon development, a global arms race is virtually inevitable, and the endpoint of this technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow. “





The AK-47 has become a symbol for uprising, warfare and terrorism because of its affordability and durability.  The assault rifle has been easily mass produced and used across the world since the late 40’s and has lasted longer than any gadgets or weaponry of its time. The authors believe that AI weapons would follow this rapid development, spelling out catastrophe for the human race.

The letter had been signed by science and technology figureheads such as Stephen Hawking, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, and CEO of Tesla Motors Elon Musk. Musk has been quoted “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that.”

Another part of this scare comes from the idea that once humans develop an autonomous AI system,  it could theoretically be one that is aware of itself and capable of self-improvement. That is, a single AI system could be capable of building systems and computers much better than itself. This will bring us to the technological singularity, or the point of no return. This technological singularity is the “occurrence beyond which events may become unpredictable, unfavorable or even unfathomable.”

Sounds a little bit like Skynet, doesn’t it? Drone enthusiasts have already strapped a handgun onto a quadrocopter. So arming other hobby drones may be easier than it seems.

One of the “hunting drones” from the T2 3-D: Battle Across Time ride at Universal Studios. Could this be the future of armed drones?

Ray Kurzweil , invetor, futurist and current director of engineering at Google, predicts a more utopian future. By 2029, he predicts that artificial intelligence will be on par with human intelligence. In an article on Wired, he states “[conscious artificial intelligence] means emotional intelligence, being funny, getting the joke, being sexy, being loving, understanding human emotion. That’s actually the most complex thing we do.”

It seems to me that this is the key to averting the ultimate doomsday scenario where robots turn into autonomous killing machines, is weaving a moral and emotional code into the artificial consciousness. Although the army may not be spending any resources into creating robots that can empathize with humans, it could be the only way to assure peaceful coexistence with sentient machines.


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