Electric Dreams and Nightmares

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By 2017-08-24

BY KRIS THOMAS

The third revolution, following the invention and application of gunpowder and nuclear arms, is upon us. Presently, if one thinks about it, we are closer to successfully creating artificial intelligence, as never before and that countdown keeps on catching speed with every passing day. We have reached a point where the deployment of autonomous weapons is feasible within years, rather than decades. That's how close we are to developing the technology.

While there are obvious economic benefits of using and incorporating artificial intelligence into a society, there are obvious areas that should completely strive away from that application. However, like any other invention that initially intended to be useful for humanity ends up becoming highly volatile when its uses are abused. This happened with gunpowder, which was hoped to be used as a mining tool and to nuclear energy, which has now been developed so thoroughly, that it exists in the form of mobile nuclear warheads the size of a small suitcase! It won't take long for artificial intelligence to be militarized therefore in this context.

In response to this growing fear of militarized artificial intelligence and lethal autonomous weapons, Tesla's Elon Musk together with 116 specialists from 26 countries are calling for a ban on such weapons. These individuals, considered to be world's leading robotics and artificial intelligence pioneers, are calling on the United Nations to ban the development or use of killer robots – yes, I said it.

The United Nations recently voted to commence formal discussions on such weapons which include drones, unmanned tanks and automated machine guns. Ahead of this, the group of founders of AI and robotics companies have sent an open letter to the UN calling for it to prevent the arms race that is currently under way for killer robots.

In their letter, the founders warn the review conference of the convention on conventional weapons that this arms race threatens to usher in the 'third revolution in warfare' after gunpowder and nuclear arms.

The founders wrote: "Once developed, lethal autonomous weapons will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend. 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."

While AI can be used to make the battlefield a safer place for military personnel, experts fear that offensive weapons that operate on their own would lower the threshold of going to battle and result in greater loss of human life.

The letter, launching at the opening of the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI) in Melbourne on Monday (21), has the backing of high-profile figures in the robotics field and strongly stresses the need for urgent action, after the UN was forced to delay a meeting that was due to start Monday to review the issue.

As we previously discussed in my last article (on nuclear energy and the paranoia that surrounds it caused by nuclear arms), it is a given that nearly every technology can be used for good and bad. Artificial Intelligence is no different. It will help tackle and provide assistance to change many of the pressing issues faced by society today; from inequality to poverty, to challenges posed by climate change and the ongoing global financial crisis. Yet, we see the same technology being primed to industrialize war. Elon Musk, calling it humanity's biggest existential threat, has gone on to say, "Nobody likes being regulated, but everything (cars, planes, food, drugs, etc) that's a danger to the public is regulated."

As mentioned before, lethal autonomous weapons are on the brink of being commercialized. The dream of household robots that assist in your day-to-day activities while you enjoy a nice cuppa, with a good book on your lounger might not be so far away. But then there's the nightmare of robots or programmes becoming military strategists, controlling the armies, the massive weapons of the world. How this would affect our world is anyone's guess. But, given the current context and the way things flow, it certainly might not be a pretty picture of the future.

(Contact this writer with your comments and criticism at [email protected])

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