Artificial intelligence (AI) researchers from almost 30 nations globally are boycotting a partnership between a Southern Korean university and a defense company over concerns that it could yield to killer robots. In fact, over 50 top academics signed the letter aimed at calling for a boycott of KAIST or Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and its partner Hanwha, a defense manufacturer. In addition, the researchers said that they would not collaborate with KAIST or host its visitors citing fears that the university sought to expedite the arms race in a bid to create autonomous weapons.
Toby Walsh, a University of South Wales’ professor and the organizer of the boycott, said that AI could be used to accomplish numerous things that can save human lives, even in the military context. However, declaring openly the move to create autonomous weapons and collaborate with a defense company like Hanwha raises the alarm. He emphasized his point by stating that KAIST as a respected academic institution was partnering with an ethically dubious company that has a reputation for violating international norms.
The boycott organized by Tony Walsh comes before the planned United Nations Geneva meeting to focus on autonomous weapons. What’s more, over 20 nations have already called for the complete ban of “killer robots.” With the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in militaries globally, fears regarding the emergence of a Terminator-like scenario have become rampant. As such, questions have come up pertaining the accuracy of autonomous weapons and their capacity to differentiate between a friend and enemy.
Hanwha prides itself as the largest weapons manufacturer in South Korea. It manufacturers cluster munitions that are banned in 120 nations under a global treaty. Russia, the US, China, and South Korea are not members of the convention.
Tony Walsh initially became worried after seeing an article by Korea Times highlighting that KAIST had joined the international competition to create autonomous weapons. In response to such news, he quickly wrote to the university but did not get any response.
Sung-Chul Shin, the president of KAIST, said he was dismayed to hear about the boycott. Nevertheless, he reaffirmed that the university does not intend to engage in the development of killer robots and lethal autonomous systems.
KAIST launched the research center intended to bring together artificial intelligence and national defense on 20 February. At the time, Shin said that the university would offer a strong foundation for the creation of national defense technology. The center would deal with composite navigation algorithms for large-scale autonomous undersea vehicles, AI-based command and decision systems, AI-based smart object tracking and recognition technology and AI-based smart aircraft training systems.
Currently, South Korea’s Dodaam Systems already makes a completely autonomous combat robot that can detect targets 3km away. Some of the company’s customers include Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Furthermore, the Taranis military drone developed by UK-based BAE Systems can operate fully autonomously.
According to Walsh, the development of autonomous weapons is deemed to worsen the Korean peninsula’s security situation as opposed to making it better. He added that even if such weapons are made anywhere else, they would eventually end up with North Koreans who would not hesitate to use them against South Koreans.