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Tech Leaders Urge United Nations To Ban Lethal Autonomous Weapons

'Once this Pandora's box is opened, it will be hard to close'.

21/08/2017 3:21 PM AEST | Updated 21/08/2017 3:21 PM AEST

Killer robots, once just characters in dystopian science fiction novels and films, could soon become the next form of revolutionary warfare after nuclear bombs, according to industry experts.

In an open letter to the United Nations (UN) Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), 116 signatories -- including Tesla's Elon Musk and DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman -- have demanded that lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) be banned amid fears that diplomats are not taking the issue seriously.

Such weapons are able to identify and attack a target without any human intervention and have been the subject of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which calls for a complete pre-emptive ban to be implemented by the end of 2018.

Indeed, the growing concerns of both academics and industry experts are valid given that unmanned aircraft have been used by the U.S. to target militants since 2012, while a fully autonomous sentry robot built by Samsung patrols the Demilitarised Zone between North and South Korea.

Once this Pandora's Box is opened, it will be hard to close.

"Once developed, they will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend," the letter read.

"These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways. We do not have long to act.

"Once this Pandora's Box is opened, it will be hard to close."

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The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots has previously called for a pre-emptive ban on such weapons.

At a UN LAWS meeting in 2016, the Australian delegation called for greater cooperation in tackling the threat of such weapons in an era of rapid technological advancement, particularly in the field of military artificial intelligence (AI).

Monday's open letter was published following the cancellation of a CCW Group of Government Experts (GGE) session scheduled to take place from 21 to 25 August. It had been tasked with "finding means to prevent an arms race in these weapons, to protect civilians from their misuse, and to avoid the destabilising effects of these technologies."

It's only a matter of time before they are operational and they are waging wars of terror

In expressing disappointment at the meeting's cancellation, which will now occur later this year, the group offered many of their researchers and engineers who "are eager to offer technical advice" to the CCW GGE's deliberations.

Speaking to the ABC on Monday, AI expert Professor Toby Walsh said that it was crucial that the UN demonstrated greater urgency in preventing the proliferation of lethal autonomous weapons.

"It's only a matter of time before they are operational and they are waging wars of terror elsewhere," he said.

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