More than 50 leading AI and robotics researchers have said they will boycott KAIST University in South Korea for the institute's plans to help develop weapons with artificial intelligence. The threat was announced before a UN meeting in Geneva next week to discuss international restrictions on so-called "killer robots". It marks an escalation of tactics on the part of the scientific community that actively fights for stronger controls in armament controlled by artificial intelligence.
The boycott was organized by Professor Toby Walsh of the University of New South Wales, who warned in a press release that the race to build autonomous weapons had already begun. "We can see prototypes of autonomous weapons being developed today by many nations, including the United States, China, Russia and the United Kingdom," Walsh said. "We are locked in an arms race that no one wants to happen, KAIST's actions will only accelerate this arms race, we can not tolerate this."
Signatories to the boycott include some of the world's leading AI researchers. , especially the professors Geoffrey Hinton, Yoshua Bengio and Jügengen Schmidhuber. The boycott would prohibit all contact and academic collaboration with KAIST until the university ensures that the weapons it develops will have "significant human control".
The trigger for this action was the announcement by KAIST in February that it was launching a joint research center with the South Korean defense company Hanwha Systems. According to The Korean Times the center's goal is "to develop artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to apply to military weapons" that "would seek and eliminate targets without human control".
But according to a report from Times Higher Education the president of KAIST, Sung-Chul Shin, said he was "saddened" by the threatened boycott, and denies that the university is building autonomous weapons systems. "As an academic institution, we value human rights and ethical standards to a high degree, KAIST will not carry out research activities contrary to human dignity, including autonomous weapons that lack significant human control," he said. Boycott organizer Walsh said Times Higher Education that he would need to consult with his co-signatories on what to do next, adding that the KAIST response still left "some questions unanswered".
The association of KAIST with Hanwha brings together two of the world's leading military and robotics organizations. KAIST is a world-class research university, known for its work as the transforming robot DRC-HUBO, which won the robotics challenge DARPA 2015.
Hanwha Systems, meanwhile, is the defense subsidiary of Hanwha chaebol . Hanwha is already involved in the development of autonomous weapons, such as the sentinel weapon SGR-A1, which reportedly has been deployed on the border between North Korea and South Korea. The company also builds cluster munitions, banned by an international treaty (although many nations abstain from this ban, including South Korea, the US, Russia and China).
Although a boycott against KAIST would be significant, some experts they say that the campaign to control the development of autonomous weaponry is useless.
Previously, leaders in AI and robotics wrote to the UN arguing that weapons that kill without human intervention could destabilize the world and should be controlled by an international treaty. This has received some international support, with 19 countries, including Egypt, Argentina and Pakistan, supporting an initiative of this kind. But other countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom say that such legislation would be impractical, due to the impossibility of defining what constitutes and what does not constitute human control. Many systems already have at least some autonomous capabilities, including drones and anti-missile defense networks.
For Walsh and others, however, the danger is too great to be complacent. "If they develop, autonomous weapons […] will allow war to be freed faster and on a larger scale than ever," Walsh said in a press release. "This Pandora's box will be difficult to close if it is opened."
Update April 4, 11:00 a.m. ET: The story has been updated to include a response from KAIST and boycott organizer Toby Walsh.