At least 50 artificial intelligence (AI) scientists from around the world called for a boycott of a South Korean university over concerns it was working with a defense company to research autonomous weapons, or “killer robots.”
In announcing the boycott, the AI scientists said they were disappointed the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) was looking “to accelerate the arms race to develop such weapons,” a claim the university has denied.
“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,” the statement said.
The scientists added that if developed, autonomous weapons will be a “third revolution” in warfare.
“They will permit war to be fought faster and at a scale greater than ever before,” the statement said. “They have the potential to be weapons of terror. Despots and terrorists could use them against innocent populations, removing any ethical restraints. This Pandora’s box will be hard to close if it is opened.”
In late February, KAIST announced the opening of a research center investigating AI in cooperation with defense company Hanwha Systems. The original announcement has since been deleted from the university’s website.
KAIST President Shin Sung-chul released a statement Wednesday saying the university had no intention to develop “lethal autonomous weapons systems or killer robots.”
“As an academic institution, we value human rights and ethical standards to a very high degree. KAIST has strived to conduct research for better serving the world,” he said.
Toby Walsh, organizer of the boycott and professor of AI at the University of New South Wales, told CNN he was mostly satisfied with Shin’s remarks. The organizers of the boycott have not yet said whether it will continue following the KAIST President’s statement.
“I still have a few question marks about what they intend to do but broadly speaking they have responded appropriately,” Walsh said.
Calls to ban AI weapons
The boycott comes less than a week before a United Nations meeting in Geneva to discuss concerns over autonomous weapons systems.
According to the statement released by the boycott supporters, 22 countries have so far called for a preemptive ban on autonomous weapons.
“Some weapons are better to be kept out of the battlefield,” Walsh told CNN. “We decided that with biological weapons, chemical weapons and nuclear weapons and use the same technology for better, peaceful purposes, and that’s what we hope to could happen here.”
The boycott is not the first time AI researchers have voiced calls for restrictions on autonomous weapons.
In 2017, the Future of Life Institute released a dystopian, seven-minute video which showed palm-sized drones carrying out massacres, entitled “Slaughterbots.”
Two years earlier, thousands of AI researchers from around the world signed an open letter calling for the weapons to be banned if they were “beyond meaningful human control.”
“Previously if you wanted to do harm you needed an army to do as you heeded, hundreds of people to follow your orders, now you just need one programmer,” Walsh said said.