More than 50 leading AI and robotics researchers have joined a boycott of South Korea's KAIST university on the institute's plans to help develop weapons with artificial intelligence. The boycott was announced before a UN meeting in Geneva next week to discuss international restrictions on so-called "killer robots". It marks an escalation of tactics on the part of the scientific community that actively fights for stronger controls of the armament controlled by artificial intelligence. .
The boycott was organized by Professor Toby Walsh of the University of New South Wales, who warned in a press release that the race to build autonomous weapons had already begun. "We can see prototypes of autonomous weapons being developed today by many nations, including the United States, China, Russia and the United Kingdom," Walsh said. "We are caught in an arms race that no one wants to see happening, KAIST's actions will only accelerate this arms race, we can not tolerate this."
Among the signatories of the boycott are some of the world's leading artificial intelligence researchers, in particular professors Geoffrey Hinton, Yoshua Bengio and Jügengen Schmidhuber. The boycott prohibits all contact and academic collaboration with KAIST until the university ensures that the weapons it develops will have "significant human control".
"The actions of KAIST will only accelerate this arms race."
The boycott trigger was KAIST's announcement in February that it was launching a joint research center with South Korean defense company Hanwha Systems. According to The Korean Times, the center aims to "develop artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to be applied to military weapons" that "would seek and eliminate targets without human control."
The association brings together two of the world's leading robotics and military organizations. KAIST is a world-class research university, known for its work as the transforming robot DRC-HUBO, which won the DARPA 2015 robotics challenge.
Hanwha Systems, meanwhile, is the defense branch of Hanwha chaebol, the powerful South Korean. Hanwha is already involved in the development of autonomous weapons, such as the sentinel weapon SGR-A1, which reportedly has been deployed on the border between North Korea and South Korea. The company also builds cluster munitions, banned by an international treaty (although many nations abstain from this ban, including South Korea, the US, Russia and China).
KAIST's robotics research is internationally respected, including its work in the development of the DRC-HUBO robot. Photo by Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
Although a boycott against KAIST is significant, some experts say that the campaign to control the development of autonomous weaponry is useless.
Previously, leaders in AI and robotics wrote to the UN arguing that weapons that kill without human intervention could destabilize the world and should be controlled by an international treaty. This has received some international support, with 19 countries, including Egypt, Argentina and Pakistan, supporting an initiative of this kind. But other countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom say that such legislation would be impractical, due to the impossibility of defining what constitutes and what does not constitute human control. Many systems already have at least some autonomous capabilities, including drones and missile defense networks.
For Walsh and others, however, the danger is too great to be complacent. "If they develop, autonomous weapons […] will allow war to be freed faster and on a larger scale than ever," Walsh said in a press release. "This Pandora's box will be difficult to close if it is opened."