AI Researchers Sign Open Letter Calling For Boycott Of South Korean University Over "Killer Robots"

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On Wednesday, AI and robotics experts from across the world penned an open letter calling for a boycott of a South Korean university after it opened a lab to explore the use of lethal autonomous weapons.

The university in question is the government-run Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), which announced plans to begin work at a newly built Research Center for the Convergence of National Defense and Artificial Intelligence in a since-deleted post last February. Projects, it said, would involve AI-styled military tools, such as "AI-based command and decision systems" and an unmanned submarine. 

The letter was signed by over 50 researchers based in 30 countries and led by Toby Walsh, a prominent artificial intelligence scientist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. 

“If developed, autonomous weapons will ... permit war to be fought faster and at a scale great than ever before. They will have the potential to be weapons of terror,” the letter authors wrote.

“It is regrettable that a prestigious institution like KAIST looks to accelerate the arms race to develop such weapons... We therefore publicly declare that we will boycott 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.”

KAIST quickly responded with a statement of their own, saying: 

“I am saddened to hear about the announcement on the boycott of KAIST for allegedly developing killer robots. I would like to reaffirm that KAIST does not have any intention to engage in development of lethal autonomous weapons systems and killer robots."

Walsh considers this a success but says he will have to speak to the letter signees before calling off the boycott. He also remains cynical about scientists' ability to retain meaningful human control over an autonomous sub, especially when it is on an underwater mission. 

It is the third open letter on the subject of lethal AI-styled weapons that Walsh has initiated. The first, in 2015, was signed by more than 1,000 scientists and business leaders involved in AI and robotics, including Elon Musk, Noam Chomsky, and Stephen Hawking. (The late physicist has been particularly vocal about the dangers of AI.)

While many have advocated caution over the development of fully automated "killer robots", it hasn't stopped militaries pressing ahead anyway. Last year, Russia announced it had developed a series of fully automated robots designed for combat. Meanwhile, in the US, the Pentagon has its own fleet of autonomous swarming drones

In response to concerns over a possible new "arms race", the newly-formed United Nations Group of Government Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems will be holding a meeting to discuss the future of AI weapons on April 9, 2018.

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