Microsoft chief Brad Smith warns that killer robots are ‘unstoppable’

microsoft brad smith killer robots ai artificial intelligence risk terminator skynet

Microsoft chief Brad Smith issued a warning over the weekend that killer robots are ‘unstoppable’ and a new digital Geneva Convention is required.

Most sci-fi fans will think of Terminator when they hear of killer robots. In the classic film series, a rogue military AI called Skynet gained self-awareness after spreading to millions of servers around the world. Concluding that humans would attempt to shut it down, Skynet sought to exterminate all of mankind in the interest of self-preservation.

While it was once just a popcorn flick, Terminator now offers a dire warning of what could be if precautions are not taken.

As with most technologies, AI will find itself increasingly used for military applications. The ultimate goal for general artificial intelligence is to self-learn. Combine both, and Skynet no longer seems the wild dramatisation that it once did.

Speaking to The Telegraph, Smith seems to agree. Smith points towards developments in the US, China, UK, Russia, Isreal, South Korea, and others, who are all developing autonomous weapon systems.

Wars could one day be fought on battlefields entirely with robots, a scenario that has many pros and cons. On the one hand, it reduces the risk to human troops. On the other, it makes declaring war easier and runs the risk of machines going awry.

Many technologists have likened the race to militarise AI to the nuclear arms race. In a pursuit to be the first and best, dangerous risks may be taken.

There’s still no clear responsible entity for death or injuries caused by an autonomous machine – the manufacturer, developer, or an overseer. This has also been a subject of much debate in regards to how insurance will work with driverless cars.

With military applications, many technologists have called for AI to never make a combat decision – especially one that would result in fatalities – on its own. While AI can make recommendations, a final decision must be made by a human.

Preventing unimaginable devastation

The story of Russian lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov in 1983 offers a warning of how a machine without human oversight may cause unimaginable devastation.

Petrov’s computers reported that an intercontinental missile had been launched by the US towards the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union’s strategy was an immediate and compulsory nuclear counter-attack against the US in such a scenario. Petrov used his instinct that the computer was incorrect and decided against launching a nuclear missile, and he was right. 

Had the decision in 1983 whether to deploy a nuclear missile been made solely on the computer, one would have been launched and met with retaliatory launches from the US and its allies.

Smith wants to see a new digital Geneva Convention in order to bring world powers together in agreement over acceptable norms when it comes to AI. “The safety of civilians is at risk today. We need more urgent action, and we need it in the form of a digital Geneva Convention, rules that will protect civilians and soldiers.” 

Many companies – including thousands of Google employees, following backlash over a Pentagon contract to develop AI tech for drones – have pledged not to develop AI technologies for harmful use.

Smith has launched a new book called Tools and Weapons. At the launch, Smith also called for stricter rules over the use of facial recognition technology. “There needs to be a new law in this space, we need regulation in the world of facial recognition in order to protect against potential abuse.”

Last month, a report from Dutch NGO PAX said leading tech firms are putting the world ‘at risk’ of killer AI. Microsoft, along with Amazon, was ranked among the highest risk. Microsoft itself warned investors back in February that its AI offerings could damage the company’s reputation. 

“Why are companies like Microsoft and Amazon not denying that they’re currently developing these highly controversial weapons, which could decide to kill people without direct human involvement?” said Frank Slijper, lead author of PAX’s report.

A global campaign simply titled Campaign To Stop Killer Robots now includes 113 NGOs across 57 countries and has doubled in size over the past year.

Interested in hearing industry leaders discuss subjects like this? Attend the co-located 5G Expo, IoT Tech Expo, Blockchain Expo, AI & Big Data Expo, and Cyber Security & Cloud Expo World Series with upcoming events in Silicon Valley, London, and Amsterdam.

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