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These prototypes are not "conspiracy theories." The dangers of autonomous killer robots are clear and present.

If a world full of artificially intelligent, autonomous quadcopters searching for and assassinating people sounds appalling, you’re in agreement with Stephen Hawking and thousands of other AI researchers and scientists.

Yesterday at the opening of the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence, an open letter was presented that called for governments to refrain from using AI to build autonomous killing machines.

“If any major military power pushes ahead with AI weapon development, a global arms race is virtually inevitable, and the endpoint of this technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow. Unlike nuclear weapons, they require no costly or hard-to-obtain raw materials, so they will become ubiquitous and cheap for all significant military powers to mass-produce. 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.”

Unfortunately, based on history we know that militaries, especially the US government, do not heed the warnings of luminaries and thinkers. The power and wealth that comes with military might is far too strong of an elixir to be affected by morality.

We also know that weaponry and crowd control technology developed by the military, through limitless funding and complete secrecy, are readily handed over to local police in their efforts to subdue the masses. If police can have MRAPs, grenade launchers and LRADS, they would be clawing for a fleet of AI autonomous weapons.

According to the researchers, technology is to the point where deployment of AI autonomous weapons is feasible within years. Its significance is likened to the development of gunpowder and nuclear arms.

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For example, the armed quadcopter mentioned above would select and engage targets without human intervention, according to pre-defined criteria, providing an extremely effective means of eliminating people.

“Autonomous weapons are ideal for tasks such as assassinations, destabilizing nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group.”

Signatories to the letter include Stephen Hawking, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, and several other leading minds in AI, physics and cognitive science.

They point out that artificial intelligence has great potential to benefit humanity, including reducing deaths during armed conflict. AI should not be used for creating death, thereby staining the technology forever.

“Just as most chemists and biologists have no interest in building chemical or biological weapons, most AI researchers have no interest in building AI weapons — and do not want others to tarnish their field by doing so, potentially creating a major public backlash against AI that curtails its future societal benefits.”

If you are in the field of AI, physics or cognitive science, please consider going to the Future of Life Institute website and signing the open letter.