Canadians among experts calling for UN action on killer robots

August 22, 2017

On August 21, 116 robotics experts from 26 countries, including Canada, signed a letter calling for the United Nations to take action on the issue of lethal autonomous weapons systems, commonly known as killer robots.

The letter comes at the start of the 2017 International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI) in Melbourne, Australia. An open letter signed by more than 3,000 robotics experts and researchers, including Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, was released on July 28 at the 2015 IJACI. These letters and the engagement of the robotics community have focused attention on the military uses of artificial intelligence and highlighted the need for regulation of lethal autonomous weapons systems. Experts are particularly concerned about the development of fully autonomous weapons—weapons that can identify, select, and target without human input.

In the 2015 letter, the experts warned, “Unlike nuclear weapons, [autonomous weapons systems] require no costly or hard-to-obtain raw materials, so they will become ubiquitous and cheap for all significant military powers to mass-produce.” In the 2017 letter, the experts stress that technological developments fast outpace regulation: “We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close.”

The two Canadian signatories of the more recent letter are Ryan Gariepy of the Waterloo-based Clearpath Robotics and Yoshua Bengio, founder of Montreal-based Element AI. Ryan Gariepy has been a leading voice of the Canadian robotics industry, calling for regulation and ultimately a ban on fully autonomous systems. Gariepy, as quoted in The Guardian, said, “Unlike other potential manifestations of AI which still remain in the realm of science fiction, 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 date of the 2017 letter is also important: it was supposed to be the start of meetings of the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva, Switzerland. In particular, it was supposed to be the start of meetings of the Group of Governmental Experts, a much anticipated step in the process of creating meaningful regulation and preventing an arms race in what experts have called the “third revolution of warfare.” However, the GGE meetings were cancelled when a number of countries did not pay their UN dues. The GGE meetings have been rescheduled for November.

The CCW has been examining the issue of killer robots since 2014. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, to which Project Ploughshares belongs, has called for a preemptive ban. This call has been endorsed  by 19 countries so far. Canada has taken a more cautious approach, calling for more discussions and asking for the GGE to provide a clearer definition of “meaningful human control”—which means that humans should always be involved in critical decisions made by a weapons systems, such as the decision to kill.

With the November meetings in mind, we call for countries such as Canada to heed these calls from experts and to take measures that will protect the world from this danger.

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