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AI Experts Threaten to Boycott a University Over Reports of Killer Robot Research

Dozens of the world’s leading experts on artificial intelligence and robotics have announced a boycott of a major South Korean research university, which has been working with an arms company on integrating artificial intelligence with weaponry.

The university, KAIST, earlier this year set up a joint research center with the defense arm of conglomerate Hanwha. Local news reported at the time that the project would aim to create software for “AI-based” missiles, unmanned submarines and armed quadcopters by the end of 2018.

“At a time when the United Nations is discussing how to contain the threat posed to international security by autonomous weapons, it is regrettable that a prestigious institution like KAIST looks to accelerate the arms race to develop such weapons,” the professors wrote in an open letter.

“We therefore publicly declare that we will boycott 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 more than 50 signatories include luminaries of the AI scene such as Geoff Hinton of the University of Toronto and Toby Walsh of the University of New South Wales. Covering a broad spectrum of universities around the world, their boycott could have a real impact.

However, the boycott may not last long. After the open letter was published, KAIST president Sung-Chul Shin said the university “does not have any intention to engage in development of lethal autonomous weapons systems and killer robots.”

“I reaffirm once again that KAIST will not conduct any research activities counter to human dignity including autonomous weapons lacking meaningful human control,” Shin said.

According to CNN, Walsh responded by saying he was mostly satisfied with the assurance. “I still have a few question marks about what they intend to do but broadly speaking they have responded appropriately,” he said.

A United Nations group will meet next week in Geneva to discuss the issues around lethal autonomous weapons systems, or LAWS. Many people and organizations, from the Red Cross to Elon Musk, have called for either bans or strict limits on such systems.