Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

AI Faces Its Manhattan Project Moment

By Guy Nolch

Researchers are boycotting a major university that is opening an autonomous weapons lab in collaboration with an arms company.

Most Australians have lived through an unprecedented era of prosperity and stability. It’s now more than 70 years since the end of the Second World War and almost 90 years since the start of the Great Depression. Since then medical advances have extended our life expectancy well into our eighties, and some futurists even proclaim that we are the last mortal generation before the “singularity” combines biological and artificial intelligence (AI).

While most of us have only witnessed some short-term stockmarket crashes, pandemic threats such as SARS and avian flu, and military interventions and counter­terrorism measures rather than full-scale wars, there are signs that this golden age may soon be disrupted. Antibiotic resistance is rapidly multiplying, automation is reducing the job market to a casualised “gig economy”, and military superpowers are again flexing their muscles.

Military tensions between the US, North Korea, Russia and China, along with trade sanctions and Cold War-era diplomatic expulsions, seem more ominous than in recent decades, not least with bombing of Syria in April, China expanding its military presence into South-East Asia, and North Korea edging closer to achieving a nuclear capability.

But it is South Korea that has captured the ire of the international scientific community. Its top university, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), has been boycotted by artificial intelligence experts who are concerned about the AI weapons lab it is opening in collaboration with Hanwha Systems, a major arms company that builds cluster munitions in defiance of United Nations bans.

AI and robotics researchers from 30 countries declared they will boycott all contact with KAIST once the AI weapons lab is opened. “We will, for example, not visit KAIST, host visitors from KAIST, or contribute to any research project involving KAIST,” they wrote in an open letter on 9 April. They warned: “If developed, autonomous weapons will be the third revolution in warfare. They will permit war to be fought faster and at a scale greater than ever before... This Pandora’s box will be hard to close if it is opened.”

Boycott organiser Prof Toby Walsh of the University of NSW called for a UN ban on autonomous weapons. “We can see prototypes of autonomous weapons under development today by many nations including the US, China, Russia and the UK,” he said. “We are locked into an arms race that no one wants to happen. KAIST’s actions will only accelerate this arms race.”

One can only imagine that these AI researchers grew up watching the Terminator movies and now fear they are witnessing the establishment of a real-life Cyberdyne Systems. The impending development of weapons that rely entirely on machine intelligence to decide what to kill is this generation of robotics researchers’ Manhattan Project moment.

Their actions are to be applauded. As the saying goes: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. But will the speed of military research outpace the steady development of a binding treaty banning autonomous weapons?

The open letter was issued ahead of a UN meeting on the issue, but don’t hold your breath on a binding treaty being put to the vote: progress was limited to defining exactly what constitutes an “autonomous” weapon. Furthermore, none of the nations with advanced autonomous weapons programs have committed to any form of binding mechanism restricting their use.

Guy Nolch is the Editor and Publisher of Australasian Science.