Artificial Intelligence - A Revolution in Warfare

Due to it’s incredible potential for life changing technology, Artificial Intelligence has been one of the fastest growing areas for research and development. The central goal behind AI is to create machines capable of human behavior, with the long-term goals being social intelligence, creativity, and general intelligence. It’s large interdisciplinary scope means that many professions are able to contribute to it’s evolution. Computer scientists, mathematicians and engineers play just as much a part as linguists, psychologists and philosophers in the creation of AI tools. Significant progress has been made within all areas of study, but there are concerns that these new advancements in technology are being misused.

On July 28, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, influential physicist Stephen Hawking, and Apple’s co-founder Steve Wozniak have all endorsed an open letter detailing a proposal to regulate the development of AI. Whilst some remarkable machines have already been created and proved to be highly beneficial, such as self-driving cars and real-time universal speech translators, it’s the military who are pushing the boundaries with the development of autonomous weapons like ”quadcopters that can search and eliminate people meeting certain pre-defined criteria”.

According to the letter, the technology “has reached a point where the deployment of such systems is — practically if not legally — feasible within years.” Armored robots sent with the sole mission to search and destroy is no longer just the science fiction premise to a James Cameron movie. It’s in the works, and many fear the worst.

However, I wouldn’t go grabbing at pitchforks just yet. There are arguments for and against autonomous weapons. One example for the creation of the weapons, and it’s a big one, is the conservation of life. Given the choice of which to send to war,  most would quite rightly choose a robot over a soldier. Robots can be replaced at some cost, but a price cannot be placed on a human life.

On the other side of the coin, if one nation’s military actively attempts to switch in autonomous weapons then many other nations will follow suit, not wanting to have a disadvantage in the case of war, and as the letter states, “a global arms race [would be] virtually inevitable.”

It will only be a matter of time until they appear on the black market and in the hands of terrorists, dictators wishing to better control their populace, warlords wishing to perpetrate ethnic cleansing, etc.

If the biggest technological pursuit within AI came to be autonomous weapons, I fear that the entire field itself will be portrayed as a deliverer of death. As if years of research all boiled down to creating killing machines. That simply is not the case, and it never has been. No one can stop the creation of these killer robots, but if this open letter’s proposal passes into law then hopefully we can shift the public’s perception of AI from this tiny, dark subset to the vast majority of subsets which are changing today’s world for the better.

Written on August 1, 2015