Elon Musk tells UN robots with guns are unacceptable, else Pandora’s box will open

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After two parents saw their child trampled by a mall security robot, and another ‘robocop’ went for a dunk in a public fountain, would you trust robots roaming the streets – and skies – with weapons? The answer should be a resounding “NO”, according to Elon Musk and a consortium of robotics and artificial intelligence pioneers.

The Tesla CEO, along with Alphabet’s Mustafa Suleyman and 116 other AI and robotics experts have sent an open letter to the United Nations urging the intergovernmental organization to not even think about deploying automated fighting drones, tanks and machine guns.

The UN recently agreed to begin “formal discussions” on such weapons, The Guardian reports. But the consortium warns it would spur a “third revolution in warfare,” after the invention of gunpowder and the existential threat of nuclear bombs.

“Once developed, lethal autonomous weapons will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend,” they wrote. “These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways.”

“We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close,” the open letter reads.

Musk is one of the strongest advocates for pro-active regulation of autonomous, intelligent machinery. He has been quoted repeatedly predicting the realization of Skynet (from the Terminator series) if humanity develops an AI that equals or surpasses human intelligence, without taking precautions to prevent a rise of the machines.

And while some may consider Musk’s forecast a tad far-fetched, we can’t help but recall recent incidents involving so-called autonomous robots deployed for security in the United States.

A “K5” unit built by robotics startup Knightscope – with built-in anomaly detection, gun detection and forensic capabilities – was clumsy enough to fall into a public fountain, incapacitating itself. Imagine it carrying a weapon whose circuitry would malfunction in contact with the water.

Another security robot ran over a toddler in a mall under the terrified gaze of its parents, as reported by abc7news last year.

And in May this year, Dubai police deployed its first real-life Robocop, boasting that it will not demand sick days or maternity leave. Hopefully it will not ask for a gun either.

Speculation aside, we are likely eons away from developing autonomous technology that is 100% safe to use. While household appliances like the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner are safe enough for our pets to sit on while they clean, the same kind of thinking cannot – and should not – be applied to machines designed to roam the streets and soar through the skies day in and day out.

If Musk and Co.’s letter falls on deaf ears, we at least hope the UN has safe technology in mind for its “formal discussions” involving killer robots.