Elon Musk and 115 robotics experts write to the UN “raising the alarm” on killer robots

The UN flag image on a blue stone wall

Back in 2015, more than 1,000 academics sent an open letter calling for a ban on "offensive autonomous weapons beyond meaningful human control." A ban has yet to materialise, so just as "Do They Know It's Christmas?" gets sporadically covered every few years, another open letter has gone out to tie in with UN talks to discuss the future of autonomous weapons.

It's shorter, and there are fewer signatories perhaps because of the time pressures involved for publication to match the UN's own schedules, or perhaps because getting the talks started in the first place was seen as victory enough for many academics. Either way, there are 116 signatories from 26 countries this time, once again including Tesla founder Elon Musk (who is outspoken on the potential dangers of AI) and Google DeepMind's Mustafa Suleyman both veterans of the last letter.

While the 2015 original letter calls for an outright ban on autonomous weapons, the new letter stops short, leaving a lot to the imagination. "We do not have long to act," the letter reads. "Once this Pandora's box is opened, it will be hard to close. We, therefore, implore the High Contracting Parties to find a way to protect us all from these dangers." Though it's hard to think of a way of protecting us from the dangers of autonomous weapons that doesn't involve an outright ban, it's slightly odd the letter doesn't explicitly call for one.

The 123 nations that make up the international convention on conventional weapons voted to formally discuss the issue of autonomous weapons last December, although the British government has previously been resistant to the idea of a complete ban, stating as recently as 2015 that "we do not see the need for a prohibition on the use of Laws, as international humanitarian law already provides sufficient regulation for this area."

There are very few parallel universes where such a justification would be classed as "reassuring", but there we are. The debate is pushing onward, and the robotics experts will hope that their views are taken on board otherwise, they'll likely be contributing to the "third revolution of warfare" whether they like it or not.

The letter is published in full below.

Main image credit: Bigstock

Alan Martin

After a false career start producing flash games, Alan Martin has been writing about phones, wearables and internet culture for over a decade with bylines all over the web and print.

Previously Deputy Editor of Alphr, he turned freelance in 2018 and his words can now be found all over the web, on the likes of Tom's Guide, The i, TechRadar, NME, Gizmodo, Coach, T3, The New Statesman and ShortList, as well as in the odd magazine and newspaper.

He's rarely seen not wearing at least one smartwatch, can talk your ear off about political biographies, and is a long-suffering fan of Derby County FC (which, on balance, he'd rather not talk about). He lives in London, right at the bottom of the Northern Line, long after you think it ends.

You can find Alan tweeting at @alan_p_martin, or email him at mralanpmartin@gmail.com.