Robot Apocalypse—Coming Soon to a Warzone Near You

By Sara Brown

Once the stuff of science fiction, we are now drawing near to a time when robots rule the world—at least according to tech leaders and visionaries such as Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, Steve Wozniak and Noam Chomsky, and more than 1,000 others from the worlds of tech, space travel, computing, and mathematics industries—in an open letter calling for an end to the autonomous weapons arms race. It seems our advancement into unmanned, autonomous weaponry is walking the delicate line between dream and nightmare for many.

A quick look at the history of artificial intelligence demonstrates a long road of building increasing decision-making power into our machines. In fact, the burgeoning Internet of Things, with its tremendous promise for the betterment of humanity, is a direct result of these efforts. But we concede, programming an “if this then that” protocol, while imbuing a system with a certain amount of autonomy, falls short of developing a moral compass for the machine itself.

Still, even in the field of warfare, intelligent, autonomous weapons hold tremendous promise. By their nature, they reduce the number of soldiers in “hot” zones—thereby theoretically reducing casualties. Nevertheless, it is hard not to agree with the signors—better safe than sorry, when it comes to self-directing WMDs. I thought they put it particularly well in their letter, when they said: “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. . . .”

Here’s to kinder and gentler uses for artificial intelligence—like IBM’s Watson winning Jeopardy! But seriously, there is more to AI than gameshows and warfare. I, for one, would like to see more focus and media coverage of the benefits this technology offers to society. It seems, on that point, Musk, Hawking and the rest are on the same page.