Australian AI expert Toby Walsh called on his international peers to boycott South Korean university KAIST’s new autonomous weapons lab.
The dystopian, autonomous weapons arms race reached new heights today as a collection of leading artificial intelligence and robotics researchers declared they will boycott South Korea’s top university, KAIST, in response to an announcement it will open an autonomous weapons lab.
The open letter includes more than 50 signatories representing 30 countries, including academics from Cambridge University, Cornell, Berkeley and the University of NSW.
According to the letter, the boycott will encompass “all collaborations with any part of KAIST until such time as the President of KAIST provides assurances, which we have sought but not received, that the Center will not develop autonomous weapons lacking meaningful human control.”
The letter included specifics such as: “We will, for example, not visit KAIST, host visitors from KAIST, or contribute to any research project involving KAIST.”
KAIST is internationally recognised for its robotics and engineering achievements. Back in 2015, a team lead by mechanical engineering professor Jun-Ho Oh won first place DARPA’s Robotics Challenge with the autonomous, human-like robot DRC-HUBO.
The university released a statement denying they intended to work on lethal autonomous weapons, but lab collaborator Hanwha Systems is a controversial choice. The major arms company, formerly known as Korea Explosives Co, has previously been blacklisted after flouting a UN convention prohibiting the use, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions.
Although South Korea is not among the signatories of this particular convention, Hanwha has been criticised in the past for continuing to produce cluster munitions, and previously was excluded from Norway’s $380 billion oil fund on ethical grounds.
“Back in 2015, we warned of an arms race in autonomous weapons,” said leading AI expert Toby Walsh, who organised the boycott.
“That arms race has begun. We can see prototypes of autonomous weapons under development today by many nations including the US, China, Russia and the UK. We are locked into an arms race that no one wants to happen. KAIST’s actions will only accelerate this arms race. We cannot tolerate this.”
Walsh has previously advocated for the importance of legislating autonomous weapons. Last year his open letter to the UN urging a ban of autonomous weapons was signed by robotics experts from 26 countries, including Elon Musk. The importance of banning these weapons, according to Walsh, cannot be understated.
“If developed, autonomous weapons will be the third revolution in warfare,” he said.
“They will permit war to be fought faster and at a scale greater than ever before. They have the potential to be weapons of terror. Despots and terrorists could use them against innocent populations, removing any ethical restraints.
“This Pandora’s box will be hard to close if it is opened.”
Editor’s note: On 10 April, researchers ended the boycott following a statement from KAIST’s President, Professor Sung-Chul Shin, who said the university would not develop lethal autonomous weapons.
“KAIST does not have any intention to engage in development of lethal autonomous weapons systems and killer robots,” he said.
“KAIST will not conduct any research activities counter to human dignity, including autonomous weapons lacking meaningful human control.”
Organiser Toby Walsh commented, “I applaud KAIST for doing the right thing, and I’ll be happy to work with KAIST in the future.”
Considering the success of this boycott, it will be interesting to see whether it becomes a useful tactic in the debate for and against autonomous weapons development. At least 381 partly autonomous weapons and military robotics systems have been deployed or are under development by 12 countries, including China, France, Israel, the UK and the US. Representatives from governments around the world are currently meeting at the UN in Geneva to discuss whether and how to regulate autonomous weapons systems as this arms race heats up.
(Main image: The Samsung SRG-A1, an autonomous robot sentry with heat and motion detectors to identify potential targets, which was jointly developed by Samsung Techwin [now Hanwha Techwin] and Korea University. The robot was developed for use in the DMZ between North and South Korea.)