Hundreds of the world's leading robotics and artificial intelligence experts have released an open letter urging the United Nations to support a ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems.

The letter is signed by 700 researchers and more than 600 other experts including Elon Musk, famed physicist Stephen Hawking, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniack, Skype co-founder Jaan Talinn and activist philosopher Noam Chomsky.

Its release coincides with the first day of the world's most prestigious AI conference, the 2015 International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence.

The letter argues that the deployment of autonomous weapons is feasible within years and will play a dangerous role in driving a third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear arms.

Toby Walsh, a professor of artificial intelligence, says: "All technologies can be used for good and bad. Artificial intelligence is a technology that can be used to help tackle many of the pressing problems facing society today - inequality and poverty, the rising cost of health care, the impact of global warming … but it can also be used to inflict unnecessary harm."

The researchers argue that replacing human soldiers by machines is good by reducing casualties but bad because it lowers the threshold for going to battle.

The open letter:

Autonomous Weapons: An Open Letter from AI & Robotics Researchers

Autonomous weapons select and engage targets without human intervention. They might include, for example, armed quadcopters that can search for and eliminate people meeting certain pre-defined criteria, but do not include cruise missiles or remotely piloted drones for which humans make all targeting decisions. 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.

Many arguments have been made for and against autonomous weapons, for example that replacing human soldiers by machines is good by reducing casualties for the owner but bad by thereby lowering the threshold for going to battle. The key question for humanity today is whether to start a global AI arms race or to prevent it from starting. 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.

Unlike nuclear weapons, they require no costly or hard-to-obtain raw materials, so they will become ubiquitous and cheap for all significant military powers to mass-produce. It will only be a matter of time until they appear on the black market and in the hands of terrorists, dictators wishing to better control their populace, warlords wishing to perpetrate ethnic cleansing, etc. Autonomous weapons are ideal for tasks such as assassinations, destabilising nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group.

We therefore believe that a military AI arms race would not be beneficial for humanity. There are many ways in which AI can make battlefields safer for humans, especially civilians, without creating new tools for killing people.

Just as most chemists and biologists have no interest in building chemical or biological weapons, most AI researchers have no interest in building AI weapons - and do not want others to tarnish their field by doing so, potentially creating a major public backlash against AI that curtails its future societal benefits. Indeed, chemists and biologists have broadly supported international agreements that have successfully prohibited chemical and biological weapons, just as most physicists supported the treaties banning space-based nuclear weapons and blinding laser weapons.

In summary, we believe that AI has great potential to benefit humanity in many ways, and that the goal of the field should be to do so. Starting a military AI arms race is a bad idea, and should be prevented by a ban on offensive autonomous weapons beyond meaningful human control.

This article was originally published by Business Insider.

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