Nuclear Test
Will artifical intelligence cause an arms race? Hundreds of academics think so. Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images

Hundreds of academics and artificial intelligence (AI) experts are hoping to ban the weaponisation of autonomous technology, warning that it could become the "third revolution in warfare."

In two open letters, sent to the prime ministers of Canada and Australia - Justin Trudeau and Malcolm Turnbull – the 300+ technologists, researchers and futurists said that killer robots, if left unchecked, will eventually be used to extinguish humanity on a grand scale.

"These will be weapons of mass destruction," warned Toby Walsh, professor of AI at Australia's University of New South Wales, who penned the letter to Turnbull sent this week (7 November).

Both letters called for an international ban on killer robots to be debated during an upcoming United Nations (UN) Conference on the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).

They read: "Lethal autonomous weapons systems that remove meaningful human control from determining the legitimacy of targets and deploying lethal force sit on the wrong side of a clear moral line.

"If developed, they will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever before, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend.

"The deadly consequence of this is that machines — not people — will determine who lives and dies. [The] AI community does not condone such uses of AI."

The academics said they want to "study, create and promote" the uses of the futuristic capabilities.

In recent years, AI and machine learning have been used to bolster military weapons and cutting-edge computer networks.

Drone attacks, especially rocket-powered vehicles, have become commonplace.

Walsh, who has been invited to speak at the UN in Geneva about autonomous weapons on 13 November, issued a stark warning about the dangers of robotics being designed to kill.

"One programmer will be able to control a whole army," he said. "Every other weapon of mass destruction has been banned: chemical weapons, biological weapons, even nuclear weapons. We must add autonomous weapons to the list of weapons that are morally unacceptable to use.

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MQ-9 Reaper during a pre-flight check August 8, 2007 Ethan Miller/Getty Images

"It's not the Terminator that experts in AI and robotics like myself are worried about but much simpler technologies currently under development, and only a few years away. Without a ban, there will be an arms race to develop increasingly capable autonomous weapons.

"We get to choose how any technology is used. I very much hope we make the right choice here. We have little time to act before these technologies are in daily use."

Ian Kerr, an author of the Canadian appeal to Trudeau, added: "Playing Russian roulette with the lives of others can never be justified merely on the basis of efficacy.

"This is not only a fundamental issue of human rights," he added. "The decision about whether to ban or engage autonomous weapons goes to the core of our humanity."