I read a lovely short story yesterday about a man who services robots in a shipping company warehouse at a time when jobs are scarce because machines are doing the vast majority of them. This isn’t some dystopian dream, either – you’re probably well aware that robots are here already, and they are taking our jobs. This trend is only going to continue, as our society undergoes a shift akin to the one caused by the Industrial Revolution back in the 18th century.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing, either – in a society where most menial tasks are performed by robots, and everyone receives a universal basic income, we could very well see a system with happier, more creative, and more relaxed people across the board. It’s like a revised socialist dream, but don’t quote me on that.
Still, inevitably there is a dark side to automation as well. Even if we fix the job and income problem, we have to remember that artificial intelligence and autonomous machines are a force to be reckoned with. For now, humans are controlling their creations, but there is increasing worry about what robots are doing to modern warfare.
As I write this, the world’s leading experts in AI research and development are gathered in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for the 2015 International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI). Today they are releasing an open letter that urges United Nations to put a ban on offensive autonomous weapons systems. While such technology is not engaging in active warfare today, the experts argue it would be feasible within years – and could usher in a warfare revolution similar to that caused by the invention of gunpowder or nuclear weapons.
“The key question for humanity today is whether to start a global AI arms race or to prevent it from starting,” write the authors of the letter. Citing the many positive uses for AI and robots, the experts also note that use of deadly killer robots could lead to public backlash against the technology, thus slowing down potential valuable research in the field. They are also concerned about causing unnecessary harm and suffering, and are opposed to the very idea of coming up with new ways to kill people. This call to action is supported by many notable people in the field – from physicist Stephen Hawking and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, to Elon Musk and even Noam Chomsky.
“We can get it right at this early stage, or we can stand idly by and witness the birth of a new era of warfare,” says professor Toby Walsh from NICTA. “Frankly, that’s not something many of us want to see. Our call to action is simple: ban offensive autonomous weapons, and in doing so, securing a safe future for us all.”
Are you worried about killer robots?