Scientists urge UN to ban robot weapons

Some of the world’s leading artificial intelligence and robotics experts and companies have called on the United Nations to ban the development of robots that kill people.

Them or us? Who is bound for the scrap heap?


In an open letter sent to the UN at the start of the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI), the world’s largest conference on Artificial Intelligence (AI), the founders of 116 robotics companies from 26 countries, including Elon Musk of Tesla and Open AI, and Mustafa Suleyman, the founder and head of Applied AI at Google’s DeepMind, called urgently for an outright ban on the technologies.

The letter is the first time that AI and robotics companies have come together to take a stance on the issue of autonomous weapons, dubbed ‘killer robots’ by campaigners and is seen by many as an expression of frustration at perceived foot dragging by the UN on the issue.

Urgent protection needed from robot weapons

For more on battlefield robots read The Guardian and Fi’s ground breaking investigation into the war of the future ‘Robot warriors take over the battlefield’.

“Lethal autonomous weapons threaten to become the third revolution in warfare,” the letter states. “Once developed, they will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend.

“These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways. We do not have long to act.

“Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close,” it states, concluding with an urgent plea for the UN “to find a way to protect us all from these dangers.”

In December 2016, 123 member nations of the UN’s Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons unanimously agreed to begin formal discussions on autonomous weapons. Of these, 19 have already called for an outright ban.

                                            UN delays

Equipped with sophisticated sensors, battlefield robots will be able to respond immeasurably faster than their human counterparts.


According to Professor Toby Walsh, Scientia Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, and one of the letter’s key organisers the UN has delayed meetings to discuss the issue until later in the year.

“Nearly every technology can be used for good and bad, and artificial intelligence is no different,” said Walsh. “It can help tackle many of the pressing problems facing society today: inequality and poverty, the challenges posed by climate change and the ongoing global financial crisis. However, the same technology can also be used in autonomous weapons to industrialise war.

“We need to make decisions today choosing which of these futures we want. I strongly support the call by many humanitarian and other organisations for an UN ban on such weapons, similar to bans on chemical and other weapons,” he added.

[otw_shortcode_info_box border_type=”bordered” border_color_class=”otw-black-border” border_style=”bordered” background_pattern=”otw-pattern-3″]“Autonomous weapons systems are on the cusp of development right now and have a very real potential to cause significant harm to innocent people along with global instability.

“The development of lethal autonomous weapons systems is unwise, unethical and should be banned on an international scale.” – Ryan Gariepy, Chief Technology Officer Clearpath[/otw_shortcode_info_box]

“Two years ago, at this same conference, we released an open letter signed by thousands of researchers working in AI and robotics calling for such a ban. This helped push this issue up the agenda at the United Nations and begin formal talks. I am hopeful that this new letter, adding the support of the AI and robotics industry”.

The companies which are signatories to the letter employ tens of thousands of researchers, roboticists and engineers, are worth billions of dollars and cover the globe from North to South, East to West: Australia, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, UK, United Arab Emirates and USA.

The Talon robot system – a robotic weapons platform that can carry a terrifying payload. According to developers, soon the robots will be able to talk, smell and hear.

Walsh is one of the organisers of the 2017 letter, as well as an earlier letter released in 2015 at the IJCAI conference in Buenos Aires, which warned of the dangers of autonomous weapons. The 2015 letter was signed by thousands of researchers in AI and robotics working in universities and research labs around the world, and was endorsed by British physicist Stephen Hawking, Apple Co-founder Steve Wozniak and cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky, among others.