2015 TakeaStandonAIWeapons

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Subject Headings: Artificial Intelligence Prediction


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The artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics communities face an important ethical decision: whether to support or oppose the development of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS).

Technologies have reached a point at which the deployment of such systems is — practically if not legallyfeasible within years, not decades. The stakes are high: LAWS have been described as the third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear arms.

Autonomous weapons systems select and engage targets without human intervention; they become lethal when those targets include humans. LAWS might include, for example, armed quadcopters that can search for and eliminate enemy combatants in a city, but do not include cruise missiles or remotely piloted drones for which humans make all targeting decisions.

Existing AI and robotics components can provide physical platforms, perception, motor control, navigation, mapping, tactical decision-making and long-term planning. They just need to be combined. For example, the technology already demonstrated for self-driving cars, together with the human-like tactical control learned by DeepMind's DQN system, could support urban search-and-destroy missions.

Two US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) programmes foreshadow planned uses of LAWS: Fast Lightweight Autonomy (FLA) and Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment (CODE). The FLA project will program tiny rotorcraft to manoeuvre unaided at high speed in urban areas and inside buildings. CODE aims to develop teams of autonomous aerial vehicles carrying out “all steps of a strike mission — find, fix, track, target, engage, assess” in situations in which enemy signal-jamming makes communication with a human commander impossible. Other countries may be pursuing clandestine programmes with similar goals.

International humanitarian law — which governs attacks on humans in times of war — has no specific provisions for such autonomy, but may still be applicable. The 1949 Geneva Convention on humane conduct in war requires any attack to satisfy three criteria: military necessity; discrimination between combatants and non-combatants; and proportionality between the value of the military objective and the potential for collateral damage. (Also relevant is the Martens Clause, added in 1977, which bans weapons that violate the “principles of humanity and the dictates of public conscience.”) These are subjective judgments that are difficult or impossible for current AI systems to satisfy.

The United Nations has held a series of meetings on LAWS under the auspices of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva, Switzerland. Within a few years, the process could result in an international treaty limiting or banning autonomous weapons, as happened with blinding laser weapons in 1995; or it could leave in place the status quo, leading inevitably to an arms race.

As an AI specialist, I was asked to provide expert testimony for the third major meeting under the CCW, held in April, and heard the statements made by nations and non-governmental organizations. Several countries pressed for an immediate ban. Germany said that it “will not accept that the decision over life and death is taken solely by an autonomous system”; Japan stated that it “has no plan to develop robots with humans out of the loop, which may be capable of committing murder” (see http://go.nature.com/fwric1).

The United States, the United Kingdom and Israel — the three countries leading the development of LAWS technology — suggested that a treaty is unnecessary because they already have internal weapons review processes that ensure compliance with international law.

Almost all states who are party to the CCW agree with the need for ' meaningful human control' over the targeting and engagement decisions made by robotic weapons. Unfortunately, the meaning of ' meaningful' is still to be determined.

The debate has many facets. Some argue that the superior effectiveness and selectivity of autonomous weapons can minimize civilian casualties by targeting only combatants. Others insist that LAWS will lower the threshold for going to war by making it possible to attack an enemy while incurring no immediate risk; or that they will enable terrorists and non-state-aligned combatants to inflict catastrophic damage on civilian populations.

LAWS could violate fundamental principles of human dignity by allowing machines to choose whom to kill — for example, they might be tasked to eliminate anyone exhibiting 'threatening behaviour'. The potential for LAWS technologies to bleed over into peacetime policing functions is evident to human-rights organizations and drone manufacturers.

In my view, the overriding concern should be the probable endpoint of this technological trajectory. The capabilities of autonomous weapons will be limited more by the laws of physics — for example, by constraints on range, speed and payload — than by any deficiencies in the AI systems that control them. For instance, as flying robots become smaller, their manoeuvrability increases and their ability to be targeted decreases. They have a shorter range, yet they must be large enough to carry a lethal payload — perhaps a one-gram shaped charge to puncture the human cranium. Despite the limits imposed by physics, one can expect platforms deployed in the millions, the agility and lethality of which will leave humans utterly defenceless. This is not a desirable future.

The AI and robotics science communities, represented by their professional societies, are obliged to take a position, just as physicists have done on the use of nuclear weapons, chemists on the use of chemical agents and biologists on the use of disease agents in warfare. Debates should be organized at scientific meetings; arguments studied by ethics committees; position papers written for society publications; and votes taken by society members. Doing nothing is a vote in favour of continued development and deployment.



 AuthorvolumeDate ValuetitletypejournaltitleUrldoinoteyear
2015 TakeaStandonAIWeaponsStuart J. Russell
Sabine Hauert
Russ B. Altman
Manuela Veloso
Take a Stand on AI Weapons2015