Academics boycott KAIST over “killer robots” concerns

More than 50 researchers in artificial intelligence and robotics pledge to boycott South Korean university because of plans to set up autonomous weapons lab with local defence firm.

autonomous weapons
It’s a slippery slope

The boycott follows an announcement from KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science And Technology) that it is to set up a laboratory with Hanwha Systems, South Korea’s largest defence contractor, which according to the boycotting researchers is involved in the production of cluster munitions despite their prohibition by United Nations Convention to which South Korea is not a signatory. This ‘Research Centre for the Convergence of National Defence and Artificial Intelligence’ has a goal of developing AI technologies to be applied to military weapons, joining the global competition to develop autonomous arms. In an open letter, the AI researchers state that they will boycott all collaborations with any part of KAIST until such time as the University president provides assurances that it will not develop autonomous weapons that lack “meaningful human control”.

According to the Korea Times, the research centre opened on 20 February 2018. In an upcoming meeting in Geneva next week, 123 member states of the United Nations will discuss the challenges posed by lethal autonomous weapons. A total of 22 of these nations have already called for an outright and pre-emptive ban on such weapons.

The boycott has been organised by Toby Walsh, Prof of artificial intelligence at the University of New South Wales, who also organised open letters warning of the dangers of autonomous weapons in 2015 and 2017.

“Back in 2015, we warned of an arms race in autonomous weapons,” said Walsh. “That arms race has begun. We can see prototypes of autonomous weapons under development today by many nations including the US, China, Russia and the UK. We are locked into an arms race that no one wants to happen. KAIST’s actions will only accelerate this arms race. We cannot tolerate this.”

Signatories to Walsh’s new open letter include some of the world’s top deep learning experts, including Prof Geoffrey Hinton of the University of Toronto; Prof Yoshua Bengio of the University of Montréal, Prof Jürgen Schmidhuber of the Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence Research in Manno, Switzerland; Prof Stuart Russell of the University of California, Berkeley, the author of the leading textbook on AI; and Prof Wolfram Burgard of the University of Freiburg. Other signatures come from 29 countries in Europe, Asia, the Americas, Australasia and the Middle East.

The signatories state that they will not visit or host visitors from KAIST, or contribute to any research project involving KAIST unless and until they receive the assurances from the president of the institution.

“If developed, autonomous weapons will be the third revolution in warfare’” the letter states. “They will permit war to be fought faster and at a scale greater than ever before. 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.”

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