Let’s ban killer robots, before they ban us…

Killer robots seem like the stuff of sci-fi — until you realise that AI experts want them banned NOW.

Ah, Monday.

What news from the tech world can we find to cheer ourselves with as we stare down the barrel of another working week?

How about…this?

Robotics and artificial intelligence pioneers have called on the United Nations to ban killer robots, warning of conflicts on an unprecedented scale if an arms race to build autonomous weapons continues.

Well, crap. The Terminator might be real.

AI pioneers say "beware the killer robots"

These "pioneers" actually make up 116 AI and robotics company founders, who would appear to be well-placed to judge how serious this risk actually could be. And they're taking it very serious – they want the United Nations to work on a ban, and the letter was timed to be released just as the UN start discussing that very issue.

The experts signing the letter say that autonomous weapons that kill without human intervention are “morally wrong,” and that their use should be controlled under the 1983 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). This UN agreement regulates the use of a number of types of weapons including land mines, fire bombs, and chemical weapons.

Isn't this science fiction? Not anymore

Is this something we really need to act on soon? Killer robots are a movie concept, not a reality, right? Well, maybe not. If you think how far weapon drones have come in recent years, the potential for AI-piloted machines to take live intentionally is there.

As The Verge reports:

Signatories to the letter say the need to act is urgent. “This is not a hypothetical scenario, but a very real, very pressing concern which needs immediate action,” said signatory Ryan Gariepy, founder of Clearpath Robotics, in a press statement. “We should not lose sight of the fact that, unlike other potential manifestations of AI which still remain in the realm of science fiction, autonomous weapons systems are on the cusp of development right now and have a very real potential to cause significant harm to innocent people along with global instability.”

A timely reminder, if it were needed, that sometimes science fiction acts as something like a cognitive early-warning system, allowing us to contemplate and make decisions about the morality of emerging technologies before they actually become viable.

Exploring the future before it happens is a vital part of making sure the future that happens is a good one.