The UN wants to make sure we’re not developing killer robots we can’t control

The United Nations has a lot of things to worry about. Famine, war, inequality, discrimination, epidemic disease… and now, reports New Scientist, the threat of autonomous robots that could destroy us on a whim.

The UN’s Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons is meeting this week with experts on the subject of “Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems”—i.e., killer robots. As Quartz has noted, at stake is the question of what level of “meaningful human control” robots, or any weapon, should be able to have. As a 2013 UN report put it (pdf, p. 7):

…is it morally acceptable to delegate decisions about the use of lethal force to such systems? If their use results in a war crime or serious human rights violation, who would be legally responsible? If responsibility cannot be determined as required by international law, is it legal or ethical to deploy such systems?

In keeping with prominent public figures who are wary about the rise of artificial intelligence and philosophers who worry about the day AI is more intelligent than the humans that created it, the UN seems to be taking a precautionary approach to lethal robots. Some countries, including Croatia and Japan, have taken strong anti-robot positions that sound more like something out of an Isaac Asimov novel than a UN meeting. Japan had this to say in a prepared statement (pdf):

“Japan’s Ministry of Defence has no plan to develop robots with humans out of the loop, which may be capable of committing murder.”

While it’s reassuring that one of the most technically advanced nations in the world promises it’s not working on something like ED-209, the timing is interesting. Yesterday, Paramount Pictures released its latest trailer for its new Terminator film, which like the rest, centers around robots hell-bent on destroying the human race.

The UN most likely won’t announce any sort of outright ban on autonomous weapons after this week’s convention, but as New Scientist points out, this could be a stepping stone on the path to a global restriction on lethal robots. (The UN currently restricts use of a range of weapons, including land mines and lasers that blind victims.) While it seems unlikely that humanity’s best weapon against a robot uprising is a UN subcommittee protocol, it probably doesn’t hurt.

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